Special to InTheRough written by Nate Louis
2018, plain and simple, was an unimaginably great year for music. There was literally something for everyone out there. And if you’re like me and you happen to love rap music maybe more than some of your own family members, well then you certainly felt right at home this year. I’d say we’ve full speed ahead trudged into the Era of Absolutely No Rules Apply… and the Streaming Era that is. That meant a whole LOT of damn rap songs + an increasingly dynamic approach to the structure of said rap songs + the nature of creating antics that live to move as their own narratives outside of artists’ actual music (see: Tekashi 69 or Pusha T vs. Drake). In saying that, it’s important to acknowledge that the full spectrum of hip-hop music still serves as 1. A response to an oppressive state of the culture that be and 2. A reactionary response of entertainment to the traumatic nature of our existence (See: the kids at the top of the balcony in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” music video, watching police brutality unfold or whatever serious issue is occuring, laughing through that pain with their phones out recording/probably making memes). These two things are not mutually exclusive and that’s how you get artists that are, on a superficial level, polar opposites like J Cole and Blueface sitting at the top of the mountain in the current rap landscape. Without further ado, this is the best albums of 2018 list. Also dropped an Apple Music playlist collection of the best songs of 2018 along with some sprinkles of 2019 stuff, which you can find that under these blurbs.
1. Some Rap Songs - Earl Sweatshirt
“Some Rap Songs” is an emotional reckoning; a story of truth, loss and not quite yet but almost, triumph. The record opens grippingly cold, with “Shattered Dreams” and “Red Waters,” referencing each other with blood and dreams. “Blood in the water, I was walkin' in my sleep. Blood on my father, I forgot another dream,” Earl rests his burdens on this 8 bar loop over an instrumental that samples his 2015 earth shaking stream of consciousness, Solace. But here on “Red Waters,” Earl ponders why no one told him he was sinking in pain the way he was, while simultaneously hoping he doesn’t get awoken from his reality fleeing slumber. Oh yeah, and if you somehow forgot that Earl can rap circles around the best of em, look no further than the lyrical exercise of “Cold Summers,” “Cold summers/ don’t tussle with strangers, Some of those keep one in the chamber. Three spliffs had my wing tips clipped/ I was stuck in a hangar, nigga, muffle my pain and muzzle my brain up.” Earl is talking shit here about how you probably shouldn’t try to rob him while in the same breath explaining how he’s robbing himself in the way he uses substances, numbing himself and dumbing it down. Most of the album is produced by RandomBlackDude (Earl’s alias for his producer alter ego). The earliest recording from the SRS sessions was “December 24th” and it’s dark, much like tracks seven & eight “Ontheway!” & “The Mint,” where we find Earl in cahoots with his frequent collaborators Denmark Vessey & Gio Escobar, also known as Standing On The Corner, and Navy Blue, adventuring into their world with a bruising offbeat earth tone flow (s/o the sLUms too, MIKE’s influence especially sprinkled all thru this album). These songs are based in soul chops, lo-fi sounds and static pauses. You’d be a fool if you thought Earl was going to make it easy for you. This isn’t easy listening, it’s not supposed to be technically clean sounding. It requires some attention, some openness to fished out feelings taking over. At the end of the day, Earl’s a writer's writer & an artist’s artist, so the details are most certainly where he lives. It’s continuously being referred to as an exercise in brevity and rightfully so.
At 15 songs, 25 minutes, Earl is a master of efficiency but he’s not trying to be perfect either.. The imperfections are where the answers lie in effect. You can tell Earl is finally getting around to trusting himself mid-album with my personal favorites, “Azucar,” where Earl professes a psalm, “there’s not a black woman I can’t thank” and “Eclipse,” a song that at first I didn’t love, but quickly grew attached to due to its careless regard for whatever we thought we wanted from Earl. This is a flex of the carefree black radical artist if I’ve ever seen one. A painfully purposeful track that sees Earl’s demons creeping up on him and eclipsing his shine, “the signs say we’re close to the end.” It hasn’t been an easy year at all for the rapper born Thebe Kgositsile, seeing the loss of his father, the great South African poet & political activist Keorapetse Kgositsile and his uncle too, South African Jazz musician Hugh Masekela, earlier this year. Although most of the album was done before their passings, we still see remembrance of these men, especially towards the end. The 4th quarter stretch of “Veins” to “Playing Possum” into “Peanut” and finally “Riot” is, well, it’d be an understatement to say an emotional rollercoaster. The drum-heavy, jazz-infused “Veins” is a moment of self-actualization for Earl that leans seamlessly into his mother, UCLA professor Cheryl Harris, praising Earl in a keynote speech alongside an excerpt of his dad, Keorapetse, reciting a famous poem of his called “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow” in “Playing Possum.” And then “Peanut,” under the weight of intense keys, walks Earl through his uneasiness with the death of his father, “Flushin' through the pain, depression, this is not a phase. Picking out his grave, couldn't help but feel out of place.” On top of the pain and sorrow already going through Earl’s complex feelings during the time of his father’s death, there’s also guilt that he finds in being present at the arrangements. Almost as if he doesn’t deserve to bury his own father. That's a heavy enough stone cast to crush anyone’s poor soul.
Finally, Earl sends us out with the trumpet riffs of his uncle Hugh on “Riot!”, which notably samples a song from his uncle’s collection. There is no fair way to briefly summarize or compact this profound journey of life and death Earl takes you on with this record, and for the most part, I think that’s the point. “The wind get the ashes in the end, bro.” Earl said that and he meant it, nothing matters and so maybe that’s exactly why everything matters. This shit is all still in the beta testing stage and even when we think we have it all figured out, everything can still fall apart, without you even noticing. Especially when we choose not to feel. This is Earl at his most captivating and penetrating and when it seems the road in the path ends and the turmoil has become too much to bear, Earl leaves traces of optimism and a renewed energy for an idea of what life could be for us to toy and toggle with, at our own discretion of course. After all, this is just some rap songs.
2. Die Lit - Playboi Carti
“when carti says ‘bought a crib for mama off that mumbling shit’ my eyes water up everytime its beautiful thats black excellence”
-Tyler, The Creator
“Just to feel like this it took a long time (yeah!),” Carti proclaims on the opening track of his debut studio album, “Die Lit.” It’s a message that resonates and carries throughout the bass-heavy album. Pi’erre Bourne and Carti struck gold when they joined forces a few years ago, and “Die Lit” proves it’s still a working formula. But the energy is different on this collection of infectious trap ballads and mosh pit initiators. Carti continues to display the message of right now and he’s doing it with intent. He has arrived and is fully embracing this moment, in a time where the generational gap is more visible and sensitive a topic than ever before, in many ways he’s the pitted at the center of that rift as a prime example of the problem that is the “new rap faction” in the eyes of “old heads.” But he’s made it clear that it’s fully fuck what anybody has to say about him.
Carti knows exactly who he is, what he does best and he keenly exposes the graceful simplicity & frankly, fucking fun, of minimalized art in 2018. He wasn’t only leaning but fully dipping into his Atlanta accent with his rich ad-libs and slanted flows on this record. “Fell in Luv,” “Flatbed Freestyle,” “No Time,” “Choppa Won’t Miss” & “R.I.P Fredo” are perfect examples of Carti’s full backstroke. He’s showing off now, and it doesn't hurt to have a Bryson Tiller, Gunna, Young Thug, & Young Nudy fully in their bags too. This is a coming of age album. This is what contemporary rap sounds like and shit, it’s a good thing when the music reflects the world around you — It’s treacherous but it’s the truth. Tyler, the Creator tweeted “when carti says "bought a crib for mama off that mumbling shit” my eyes water up everytime its beautiful thats black excellence” and, honestly, I can end this right here because I’ve never agreed with anything more in my life. *tear hits keyboard*
3. 777 - Key! & Kenny Beats
On the opening track of “777,” Kenny Beats opens up the production with a triumphant chant and rightfully so given what’s about to blair through your speakers. Let the fun begin. Key! belts out on the album opener, “Demolition 1 +2,” “I been that nigga for forever” & “There is no one like me, ay!” & additionally “Can’t nobody stop me but me/ trust me, 3 7’s lucky/ gluttony that mean I want everything/ almost bought a diamond chain but I got too high and I almost died but you know a nigga got by/ almost touched the ground but I’m way too flyyyyy”. This is indeed true and telling of the Atlanta native Key!. He has been that nigga for forever. Since the early days of being a founding member of Two-9 and later shapeshifting into an A$AP Yams (RIP YAMS!) type A&R while still continuing his own artistry. Key! has been instrumental in being one of the first to fuck with many of rap’s current hottest acts like 21 Savage, ILoveMakonnen (most notably via Father’s cult classic “Look At Wrist”), A$AP Mob, the list goes on. But on this “777” project, Key! has fully morphed into his own being as a soloist, of course with the help of the frenetic energy that is the production of Kenny Beats (the former EDM DJ Loudpvck turned best producer of 2018, yes I said it!).
This project is by far the most refreshing and fun rap joint of the year. Key! consistently throughout the record, straight lobs out of left field ad-libs at you and you don’t even see them coming (“Open up that fucking Mosh Pit!” “Hey, Big Head!”). “Love on Ice” & “It Gets Better,” the project’s standouts for me, find the rapper crooning over trap drums and wondrous synths about how goofy love can make one act and how things do indeed get better with time. “Boss”, “Toronto” and “Dig It” serve as exercises of Key’s unwavering ability to create catchy ass hooks with loose flows, subtle boasts and bizarre yet somehow sensible punchlines. No one track on here sounds the same and chalk it up to the limitless versatility of Key! and Kenny Beats. When you pay attention, you get insight into a lot of real shit Key! is feeling like when he says, “I get high to stay away from y’all” and “I thought that God was the most high/ pay my child support, my kids we look just alike/ That’s true looooooove.” When I interviewed Kenny Beats for Noisey, he actually told me that some of these records came about because Key! would just wake up one day and come to the studio and be like “I wanna sound like Beyonce today.” Kenny Beats is just laying the canvas while Key! paints the track away. “777” is one of the strongest and most unorthodox records of the year from the most unlikely duo. It’s what you get when you combine massive amounts of raw talent, imagination, and chemistry between two of the games’ elite.
4. OX - Matt Ox
Okay so, Matt Ox probably shouldn’t be this high on the list, but also I don’t care. “OX” is 26 minutes of terrifyingly haunting beats that carry extreme flexes and designer flows; the punchline, of course, is that Matt Ox is a 14 year old white kid from Philly. The rapper who got famous off the song “Overwhelming,” which features kids playing with fidget spinners and a captivating Oogie Mane instrumental, has officially overstayed his welcome… and I’m loving every minute of it. Matt Ox isn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t expected to be more than just that little white kid who looks like a punk rockstar who raps, with his deep black anime hair that covers most of his face. Yet, here he is with a whole debut album, produced mostly by the Philly collective, “Working on Dying.” At 11 songs, the album is delectably quick and at times the production shines stronger than Matt Ox himself but that’s not a slight at Matt. It is rather an observation of his ability to step back, understand what he does best and let the rest work in his favor. Then there are moments where Matt shines beyond what he’s supposed to. On “Ride Around,” he finds himself on cruise control the first 30 seconds of the record with a soft melody about riding around with the gang and then the beat drops and something magical happens — Matt is sliding in and out of these pockets in a chopped up flow that’s so bananas I’m still mesmerized to this day, and then again slides back out into his melodic flow on the last 30 seconds — It’s a work of minimized art truly, if I’ve ever seen one.
The designer flows and extreme flexes do carry most of the album as far as substance goes, but there’s an ability he has to make it hilariously cool because you remember at times that he is a 14 year old kid. My favorite bar on the entire album, “The teacher would test me to see where my mind is/ Now I’m only testing VVS diamonds” is a complete flex on me as a 23 year old man listening to this kid. If I could pick three features to have on my album in 2018, Chief Keef, Key! And Valee are the exact three I would pick and that’s why I have the respect I do for Matt Ox because he has to have a pretty high level of self-awareness of not only his sound but what’s good right now in the rap game. “Pull Up” with Key!, features harmonious production from TrapMoneyBenny that complements Matt Ox’s Drippin’ in Margiela voice perfectly and stands out as the best song on the album. On “Ya Dig,” “Zero Degrees,” and “Blue Racks,” Matt presents perhaps the best version of himself warping his voice to present his catchiest hooks, allowing him to move as he pleases throughout the rest of the song. And on “Walk Out” ft. an interstellar Valee verse, Matt delivers one of the most powerful lines on the album, “started to stack (yuh), when my mama stopped giving' me money, stopped doing allowance cause that was little cash to me.” There’s no telling how long Matt Ox will be around, but “OX” has certainly bought him a bit more time to zero in on his sound and cement himself as more than a funny meme in the rap game.
5. Whack World - Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack is a genius. Let me just start this off by saying that because that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the beautiful madness that is “Whack World.” The 22 year old Philly native’s creativity knows no boundaries and yet her art is structured perfectly — the part visual album, part conceptual art project sits at precisely 15 tracks, 15 minutes — each song a minute long. She opens the album letting us know off rip this is all her here and nothing can stop it, “readin’ my open mail/this ship here won’t sail/ best believe I’m gon’ sell, if I just be myself/ Imma head and you’re tails/ Red paint on my nails, keep shit to myself, listen to myself”. There’s also a sharp self-awareness of her existence in this world and this industry revealed in lines like “Probably would’ve blew overnight if I was white”. “Whack World” is by far one of the most innovative albums of the year and, to be quite frank, of the last 10 years as well. In the making of this album, Tierra tasked herself with the challenge of stretching all her abilities cohesively throughout the album while also compressing them in that same vein. It creates for an exciting and disorienting combination of genre bending space and time. In the empty space between her lines you hear Tierra in this pocket brilliantly, yet nonchalantly citing “All boys cry and touch vaginas/ Bitches eat tacos”, which perfectly ties into the name of the track, “Cable Guy.” On others, like “4 Wings” & “Pet Cemetery,” Tierra toys with double meanings consistently throughout “Salt, pepper, ketchup and hot sauce/ fry hard cause I do not like soft” and “My dog had a name/ keepin’ his name alive/ If I had to leave, hell on Earth, all dogs go to Heaven.”
“Whack World” also serves as an intentional commentary on social media consumption and streaming. Even if only for a moment, Tierra succeeded in cheating the system by creating a hypnotizing point of view that rids us of what is the mindless consumption of content online, providing us with a pure 60 seconds of art. It’s profoundly monumental work in the way it’s set up. I’m most impressed by Tierra’s linguistic style approach and the way she’s able to play with language as a songwriter. On “Pretty Ugly” she raps, “Crispy clean and crisp and clean/ for the dough I go nuts like Krispy Kreme/ music is in my billy jeans” & on “Bugs Life”, “Niggas coming up short where’s the other half/ even if my eyes still won’t fucking crash/ I’m in my fucking bag.” Elsewhere on “Fruit Salad,” Tierra playfully points towards self care talking about drinking water and eating her fruits and veggies. “F*ck Off,” probably my favorite song on the album, lives in a warped country cadence that basks in the greatness of a cartoonish presence yet Tierra is talking about some real shit here, i.e. wringing her father’s neck telling him to simply F*ck Off. “I wrote this cause I feel ten feet tall/ I know you don’t ever wanna see me ball/ Ice cold in a coat baby I won’t thaw.” On the jovial “Hungry Hippo,” the most notable track on the album, she flexes her *if not already visibly known by the album itself* uniqueness, “He likes my diamonds and my pearls/ I said, thank you I designed it/ Not your average girl” while on “Sore Loser,” she loses the innocent pop star act for a flow that’s gritty and raw to its core. Finally, “Waze” finds Tierra pouring her heart out, singing “They just wanna see me stressed/ They don’t wanna see me blessed/ They cannot take away what I worked for/ I know that I am worth mo-o-o-ore.” The intrigue surrounding Tierra is enough to blast her into a stratosphere where she serves as her own star in the making, and there’s a certain kind freedom in those margins that most haven’t been able to create for themselves. In all, “Whack World” serves as this bridge between doing the most in the least amount of space, creation and consumption, intent and purpose, dreams and nightmares and most of all humor and irony.
6. War in My Pen - MIKE
There’s something to be said about music that teaches you something about yourself. Not just in the sense of relatability — I’m not talking about that — but music that teaches by saying the things that you shy away from acknowledging about yourself. That’s the effect 19 year old Bronx rapper, MIKE, has on me. Very much a call to arms, “War in My Pen” sees MIKE in a battle of self that ranges from feelings of despair, to redemption, to solace, and ultimately to a broad realization of human condition. The album, produced solely by himself — dj blackpower (another producer alter ego) feels like scattered thoughts across a noisy subway ride from Downtown Manhattan to Uptown Harlem; at any moment it can take you to a place of brooding while in the same light giving way to enlightenment. There’s power in his observations and harsh truths about the black man’s life here in America, most evident on songs like “October Baby” when he spits “I only think about revenge when I barely could eat/ At the end, lights scary as me. Shit there’s police in the area, be careful where you carrying free/ I be scared to lose my life, but be caring to leave.” The confessional nature of his thoughts are prudent and self-effacing. He tries to build a community of comfort for his listeners, “never sitting on a thought because my mission shared/ If the last one didn’t work, we’d try a different prayer,” he raps on “Prayers.” And much like the NYC DIY collective he sits amongst — the slums experimental hip hop group which consists of Medhane, Adé Hakim (Sixpress), Navy Blue, Jazz Jodi, King Carter, and Darryl Johnson — MIKE is purposely creating an airtight following of fans that are willing to sit in this ziplocked compartment and figure this shit out together.
“I know this life I live just wasn’t what mother planned, but she still understand, I’ve grown into a lovely man”
His mother remains front and center as the guiding spirit on this project. “Like my mama in my feelings, I be drowning” he says on the Navy Blue assisted “Like My Mama,” feelings that spill onto the rest of the album. On “Grabba” MIKE reasons “I know this life I live just wasn’t what my mother planned/ But she still understand, I’ve grown into a lovely man.” I felt that. The track “Ucr” stretches his palette a bit further with the first 45 seconds finding MIKE surveying a bouncy, galvanic loop that transitions into an organ filled soul sample. And on “NeverKnocked”, MIKE poses the wrecking question, “who was really there when the bliss wasn’t?” Finally, MIKE makes an abrupt exit on “For You” by sitting tight on this sturdy loop claiming, “fight with my demons, signs of achievement, tryna be with/ When heart isn't even, it's hard to believe in.” Even as his success and his name continues to grow there’s still an air of uncomfortability with his own being that MIKE faces and maybe this is exactly what shields him from the blazing temperatures of Earth’s core as he travels deeper on his self-reflective journey that will hopefully, ultimately lead him to peace at the center.
7. Daytona - PUSHA T
Pusha T owned the Summer of 2018, straight up. He accumulated win after win after win. Beginning of course, with the notorious Drake beef, how could one forget the one chink that finally stuck in Aubrey’s armor — the wicked “Story of Adidon”. Cold and calculated, Push steadied his aim and fired. But that really was beside the point. “Daytona” was the first album in a five-album series of GOOD Music releases exclusively produced by Kanye West. At 21 minutes, “Daytona” gives us Pusha T at his sharpest focus with pointed motivation behind every breath. He’s here to prove the point that he still has the most potent pen in the game — YUUUUGH. The album consists of exactly what we dreamed a Kanye West and Pusha T album would — a lot of soul chopping samples and the finest of luxury drug raps. It’s tightly wound and, perhaps, the best solo work that Pusha T has dropped to date.
It says a lot about a man when you don’t get tired of hearing him rap about selling cocaine for almost 15 years now. He’s perfected a craft, and it will keep him around as long as he cares to be; it’s the gift of storytelling that grants him the luxury of time. Nods to his influences are expertly woven into the 7 tracks, like Hov in “The Games We Play” where he rhymes “Ain't no stoppin' this champagne from poppin'/ The draws from droppin', the laws from watchin'” and then to LOX “Who grew up on legends from outer Yonkers.” And finally, Raekwon’s “The Purple Tape” with Ghostface, Pusha spits, “To all of my young niggas, I am your Ghost and your Rae. This is my Purple Tape, save up for rainy days.” On “If You Know You Know,” Pusha delivers over Ye drums bars only drug dealers could relate to, hence the title. Then on “Hard Piano,” Rick Ross and Pusha come correct over Ye’s hard-tinged piano beat. “Come Back Baby” finds itself with the chorus samples from George Jackson’s “I Can’t Do Without You” and Pusha T with the encompassing line of the album “Who else got the luxury to drop when he want 'Cause nobody else can fuck with me? What a show-off” & “Stood the test of time like Dapper Dan” running parallel with the album’s overarching theme of an artist at the top of the game, having the confidence and skill to be able to experience a near infinite amount of freedom.
From there, “Daytona” seamlessly transitions into “Santeria,” my personal favorite and what I’d consider the sleeper of the album. “Santeria” features a beautiful acoustic guitar melody that could live on it's very own and a spanish refrain from 070 Shake, along with possibly the strongest and realest verse on the album — the third verse from Push serving as an ode to hip-hop friend and road manager De'Von “Day Day” Pickett who was murdered. What Kanye does with the production on this that’s so special, much like Rick Rubin on “Yeezus”, is strip down samples to their most essential and potent core. Then on “What Would Meek Do”, Pusha poses a similar question to his producer who finally hops out of his chair and into the booth himself “Niggas talking shit Ye, how do you respond?” and of course “Poop, scoop! Whoop! Whoopty-whoop! Am I too complex for ComplexCon?” And finally Pusha delivered the knockout punch and in the spirit of circling back to finish what he started with the “Story of Adidon” places “Infrared” as the closing track on “Daytona.” The laser beam locked onto its target, (and Wayne and Baby for a brief moment too), he closes the song saying “How could you ever right these wrongs/ When you don't even write your songs? But let us all play along/ We all know what niggas for real been waitin' on/ Push.” Now if you’ll notice for a second class, that’s not one but two very specific lyrics that Drake has before used in songs (“Poetic Justice” & “Legend”) from the old Kanye song “Touch the Sky.” Check and Mate.
8. MUDBOY - Sheck Wes
“I’m a mudboy. I came from the mud, oozed out the concrete. I’m not a rose. I’m a mudboy, I came from nothin.”
The first words we hear out of Sheck’s mouth on his debut album, “MUDBOY,” is “BITCH!” Because what else would be more fitting? A couple songs later on “Gmail” he gives an alluring explanation of why he says Bitch so much, “It’s the only word where I could feel and hear all my anger.” The Harlem native’s album, that has no features surprisingly, (but not really surprisingly if you know him) is rooted in treacherous streetisms and the glory of a budding star with growing pains trying to navigate a world that is by-and-large against him. The rapper from Senegal had his breakout hit, produced by Take a DayTrip & 16yrold, the now platinum “Mo Bamba” — an ode to his longtime friendship with NBA Orlando Magic Rookie Center Mo Bamba, also of Senegalese descent and from the same Harlem neighborhood as Sheck — drop in 2017 and yet didn’t fully blossom until a year later. A testament to the patience and work put in to cultivate slow but steady buildup that finally landed Young Sheck Wes on the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 well into 2018. The rest of the album features haunting production from the hands of Lunchbox, another Harlem native, and Miami’s Redda. Sheck’s music is one of reckless abandon when it comes to structure and yet there are moments of solitude and peace that leave you questioning whatever you previously thought you knew about Sheck Wes. A crossover episode between DMX and Lil B, in that his stream of consciousness raps provide an energy that’s infectious and real to the core, and many tend to get lost in that.
There’s a message and a story Sheck is trying to tell here. “I’m a mudboy. I came from the mud, oozed out the concrete. I’m not a rose. I’m a mudboy, I came from nothin,” is one of those lines that will always stand out to me from when I interviewed him last year. The energy that radiates from “Mo Bamba” is notoriously capable of causing everyone from adults at the club to kids at his shows to begin fighting at any moment during the song, and even trickled into the industry when both Travis Scott and Kanye West got a hold of Wes’s buzz at the same time and okay maybe not fought, but definitely verbally argued about who would get to sign this rose out the concrete. What then transpired is Sheck Wes’ current deal which ended up being a joint agreement between Travis, Cactus Jack Records, & Kanye, GOOD music, all under the Interscope umbrella.
Sheck Wes has effectively gone against the grain of what any New York artist has ever sounded like before while maintaining everything that makes a New York artist a New York artist — charisma, hustle, brazen and an unwavering care for the art. What inspires me most about Sheck Wes is that everything he says in these tracks, whether you notice or not, is him telling his real life story in real time. He means every word and you believe it. Even in the eclectic energy of “Mo Bamba” there is the story being told of how Sheck was being recruited by all these labels trying to get him to sign a deal, similar to the way a League-bound high school ballplayer is pursued by coaches, agents, etc. In a Pitchfork interview with staff writer Alphonse Pierre, his producer Lunchbox shares “His story is crazy. It’s about the trenches of Harlem. Shit ain’t sweet, this shit is dark, you feel me? It’s a feeling. Niggas who were really downtown stealing shit and going uptown to sell it to make bread. It's hard to find a mix of music that is saying stuff and makes you want to tee up. Sometimes he be saying shit, that just relates to niggas.” And these are the facts, perfectly summed up there. To put it plainly, Sheck Wes just be saying shit that niggas can truly relate to. “It get tragic where I live” he blurts out on the opening track “Mindfucker.” And simultaneously understanding, “Shit got to happen for me to learn these lessons”; this awareness that life is life and things are going to happen that are going to shape you for the rest of your life is something most aren’t ready to come to grips with, especially a 20 year old kid. In that same breath he claims, “My mind my greatest weapon.” “Live Sheck Wes” is a roaring anthem in which he makes his mission simple — Live By Sheck Wes, Die by Sheck Wes. On “Gmail” it gets gritty now with Sheck bellowing one of the album’s catchiest hooks, “I’m young and misguided but I’m so into detail/ Legend like Kobe, Scrappy Like Sprewell/ Sheck 8 times, Sheck like Kobe, Sprewell. Gas is my cologne, Good fragrance what we smell/ Packs comin' in, send it by the Gmail.” “Gmail” then creeps into “Wanted” with “I was wanted” whispers at the end much like “WESPN” slips into “Kyrie” with “Kyrie, K-K-Kyrieeeee” chants at the tailend, and it all speaks to the impressive cohesiveness of the album. On Redda’s bass distorted production for “Wanted,” we get a Wayne-like lighter flick to start the party and some “Mudboy” whispers until Sheck comes in literally catching licks “Cause if it’s a grimy world, then niggas bout that.”
My personal favorite stretch on the album begins with “Never Lost” where he retells the story of his troublesome teen years which led to his mother sending him to Africa and making him stay there in the religious temples for months and the lessons he learned from this experience, “cause young niggas out here will kill, young niggas gotta eat”. This goes into “WESPN,” the beautifully soothing basketball ballad that perfectly captures snapshots of the Renaissance man Sheck is “skipped my game (high school playoff basketball game) for the fashion show (YEEZY Season 3 fashion show @ MSG), one of my best decisions, that’s facts/ backwood addiction, ain’t the THC, that’s facts, nonfiction.” Sheck cries out later on in the song, “They just want the turnt stuff, they don’t like the sad music” a clear sentiment about his unwillingness to limit himself to creating energetic art he’s become known for. And to cap off the stretch is “Kyrie,” another you could possibly boil down to a basketball ballad with more percussion jingles carrying the momentum. This one compares Sheck’s early success in the music industry to a likened state of a Rookie in the NBA — “Jayson Tatum, rookie, how I'm ballin' in the sleeve.” Fast forward along to the popping synths on “Jiggy on the Shits,” Sheck remains true to himself, speaking on his occurrences during his time in Africa and even giving us a 16 in his Senegalese native tongue of Wolof. Transitioning into the end of the album Sheck is screaming “F**k Everybody” on some hi-hats and drum kicks that are tantalizing still to this day. Sheck is pulling up from halfcourt now. Chanting in typical new york kid fashion, “Fuck my school nigga (fuck school), Fuck the police too (Fuck 12 too)/ They tryna see me in a slump nigga, that’s why young Sheck Wes always keep the fucking pump nigga, I ain’t a dumb nigga.” On the playful Cardo produced “Danimals,” Sheck delivers a very delicate whisper and a hilarious Chappelle show reference “Nigga divorced his wife cause she was a Nigger lover, remember that shit on Dave Chappelle shit, on the skit? I’m explicit I don’t give a fuck!” The outro “Vetements Socks” is a rallying cry for all New York kids, at Sea and on land, “Young Sheck Wes from the projects, sex drugs money and violence/ all my hoes be whyllin, free all my boys in the island (Rikers)” & “Shecks I’m too real, bitch I ain’t a actor/ I was out in Africa living Fear Factor.” Sheck Wes delivered an impressively strong debut album and for what it’s worth, Sheck did it alone with no help nor help wanted from his co-signs. He wanted his story to be the photo in focus and solely his ability to transport his art to a higher place and he accomplish exactly that. Showing versatility, emotional range, infectious cadences and a dedication to the craft. The last line that stuck out to me is “Young Sheck Wes, stay on the block/ Pulling up on bitches in my Vetements Socks” because in its essence, it's exactly what Sheck hopes to be: A man who understands his toil and uses his experiences, skills and finesse to keep him grounded while also elevating him to a place where he can accomplish bigger missions, that of a humanitarian — most importantly — in his Vetements Socks. OWWWWW!
9. Kids See Ghosts - Kanye West & Kid Cudi
Kanye West & Kid Cudi are, for argument sake I am not going say influential, and instead, two of the most powerful forces in hip-hop in the last decade. So when it was announced that they were finally going to release a joint album, you can best believe 2010 me was literally crying somewhere inside. For context, let’s go back for a second — the year is 2005 and Kid Cudi is up and out, leaving his hometown of Cleveland behind for New York to make it in music. Fast forward a couple years and Cudi’s somber screeching single, “Day N Nite” finally breaks through and you hear it playing everywhere, even on NBA 2K9. Fast forward another year to meeting Kanye West, and now he’s been tapped to shape the sound of the frequency bending album that would inform a whole new faction of music — “808s and Heartbreak.” Now back to the present landscape, “Kids See Ghosts,” the first full length collaboration by Kanye and Cudi, for better or for worse, is exactly what we’d thought it’d be. This album also arrives after both Kanye and Cudi have had public meltdowns and a falling out between each other back in 2016 so this album is something of a redemption and a reconciliation. Kanye was perhaps the most striking he’s been on an album since “Yeezus” in terms of bringing something experimental to the plate as well as his bars. And Cudi, well Cudi did what he always does, and that’s absolutely blow us away with hums and emotional croons from the depths. Kanye really allowed Cudi to shine through on this album and put him in the best position to succeed, unexpectedly taking the Pippen role, with Cudi as Jordan and the remaining cast of Pusha T, Mos Def and Ty Dolla $ign the strong supporting cast of Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper.
On the opening track, “Feel the Love,” Pusha T picks up where he left off on Daytona with poignant bars but the kicks nor snares don’t even drop until Pusha is more than halfway through his verse. And then enters bashing gun sounds being uttered from, none other than, the mouth of Kanye West of course. “Fire,” produced partly by Andre 3000, takes the drums from the 1966 infamous black comedy novelty record “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” which complement Cudi at his best, opening up about feelings of despair that turn to notions of prevail and delivering hooks that send chills up your spine. And when you think the surprises can’t get any weirder when Kanye West is involved, leave it to him to grab a 1936 sample from jazz great Louis Prima, switching up his “What Will Santa Claus Say?” into a groovy, unnerving, rap boasting soundtrack with it’s outro a nod to “Someday” by Shirley Ann Lee, “Just do that and then let the music do somethin', and then do that again, that'd be enough for a record. I mean, you only want two and a half minutes if you can get it, you know, three minutes max—.”“Freeee,” the sequel to Ghost Town from Ye’s own solo album “YE,” delivers on the beautifully endless potential that any Kanye and Cudi track holds, the soul chops transcend each artist’s voice on the track. And when you think you’ve been lifted enough, Cudi finds a way to shoot you straight through the sky and to the Heavens. “Keep moving forward,” Cudi sings inspired on “Reborn,” amazing drums rift and soft keys between allow space for Cudi’s voice to shine through the veil in such a patient way. And then Kanye delivers a charged verse about his recent dealings with mental health and his public behavior, “What an awesome thing, engulfed in shame/I want all the pain/I want all the smoke/I want all the blame.” There’s a honesty in it that you can’t find in many other places and empowering too. The title track, “Kids See Ghosts” calls Yasiin Bey from the chasm looping 4 metaphysical bars “Civilization without society/ Power and wealth with nobility/ Stability without stasis/ Spaces and places,” along with Japanese futurism themes oozing onto the paper, you can chalk that up to the creator of the cover art’s influence — Takashi Murakami. Leading into the final track on the album, “Cudi Montage,” the best song on the album if you’re asking me, which you may not be, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Cudi montage is the best song on the album for several reasons. Firstly, because it samples Kurt Cobain’s “Burn the Rain,” a home-recorded scrap that was unearthed to soundtrack the 2015 documentary “Montage of Heck”. Secondly it provides Kanye’s most imagery provoking bars in a while. Kanye speaks on the cyclical nature of violence with piercing details and cutting lyrics, “Everybody want world peace until your niece gets shot in dome piece.” Even adding a shout-out to Alice Johnson, the African American grandmother jailed for over two decades on a non-violent drug charge who Kim Kardashian West (and his relationship to Trump) recently helped – and successfully – lobbied for the release of. And finally, and most importantly, if you’re like me a longtime Kanye fan, Mr. Hudson is reintroduced helping guide Kanye and Cudi across the beautiful “Stay Strong” bridge, just like the old days. Listening to Kanye’s production fold so well into the orchestration of his collaborators on this album is a good sign, one that shows the almighty ear for music still persists in the man.
“Kids See Ghosts” is an exercise in utility and selflessness. As much as it may be their own therapy, the album, in its essence, largely lends itself to the need of optimism by a nation crying for help. And if this 24 minutes showed us anything, it’s that even when things seem the darkest, optimism can arise, if only for a moment, through light and love and shed sanguinity that maybe, just maybe we too can move forward and be reborn.
10. Swimming - Mac Miller
There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said. No story I can tell that hasn’t been told. Mac was loved because he was in every single way — in his humor, in his flaws, in his sadness and in his humility — representative of us. He was human when he didn’t have to be human! He was humble when he didn’t have to be humble. And he was always careful how he approached our hip-hop culture when he certainly did not have to be careful. I can’t write about this album the way I want to; the wound is still too fresh and the music too full of grief. But I do ask that you read Mac’s last interview with New Yorker reporter and music critic Craig Jenkins to capture the beauty of his mind. And appreciate this album for all it is, because it is really a good one and not just because he passed *cough cough* Grammys... All I really want to say to Mac Miller, the best white rapper of all time, is thank you for everything.
RIP XXXTentacion (20), Jimmy Wopo (21), Mac Miller (26), and Fredo Santana (27)