You’ve already seen our year-end list for songs (and hopefully subscribed to one of our playlists). This week, we’re outlining our list of the best albums from the past year.
As with last year, we’re basing our list off of works eligible to be nominated for the 2019 Grammys (with no repeats from our previous list). However, unlike previous years, we’re actually ranking our top 5, as well as outlining some honorable mentions.
Note: We compiled this list before the 61st Grammy nominations were announced, so there is no real reflection of that impacting this list. Several of the nominees can be found here.
Black Panther: The Album — Various Artists (February 9, 2018)
What do you get when you task the best rapper alive with making the soundtrack to one of the biggest movies of all time? Why, the chart-topping, platinum-certified Black Panther album, of course! Fresh off his killer 2017, Kendrick Lamar started the year off by promoting this fantastic compilation album with Top Dawg Entertainment. Reflecting the film’s themes of the African diaspora, Black Panther: The Album features Black artists and producers from the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. It may also garner the Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper his first Academy Award nomination — as well as SZA. Wakanda forever!
What makes this compilation work is its duality. It is just as comfortable with its softer, introspective songs as it is with its harder, trap-based ones. It’s not afraid to have fun, and it doesn’t shy away from being an eclectic listening experience, either. The best part: knowing the family-friendly House of Mouse signed off on both cavalier usage of “the N word” and Future singing “slob on me knob” in falsetto.
KOD — J. Cole (April 20, 2018)
KOD is probably the most J. Cole album ever. It’s his third straight album with no real features (the sole artist “featured” on this album being himself). Its concept is so abstract that he explained it on Twitter and still couldn’t make up his mind. It’s very much a hit or miss record — which explains Cole’s entire career in a nutshell.
And yet, when this album is good, it’s damn good. Cuts like “KOD”, “ATM”, and “1985” catch him in top lyrical form. “Kevin’s Heart” and “Once An Addict” see him utilizing his greatest asset — his storytelling. Then songs like “FRIENDS” sound like hypocritical finger-wagging (“don’t do drugs, but also come smoke weed with me!”) mixed with voicing the frustrations of his community. If he wasn’t also a talented producer (he worked on 11 out of the 12 tracks), much of this would fall flat. But he manages to authentically capture his thoughts and emotions, and it really shows throughout the entire project.
Lady Lady — Masego (September 7, 2018)
Masego is a new kid on the block. Hailing from Newport News, Virginia, the young artist mixes jazz, hip-hop, and R&B to craft a distinct sound rivaled by few contemporaries. He’s also funny as hell, boasting a witty sense of humor alongside a penchant for solid songwriting.
Lady Lady is a standard album about love, relationships, and finding the one that works best for you. But the Jamaican native makes this typically cliche content engaging with a mixture of saxophone (“Tadow”), comedy (“Old Age”), and good, old fashioned vocals (“Black Love”). He even recreates an old OutKast skit in “24 Hr. Relationship”. A strong debut, Lady Lady is definitely worth a listen.
Room 25 — Noname (September 14, 2018)
Noname seemingly came out of left field. Her sophomore effort is currently the year’s highest-rated album, which would be surprising to those who barely remember her work with Chance the Rapper. That being said, her stream of consciousness flow and smooth jazz-inspired vocals often make you ignore the quick wit of her songwriting. “Keep the hot sauce in her purse and she be real, real blacky,” she raps in “Blaxploitation”. “Just like a Hillary Clinton, who masqueraded the system.” Where her contemporaries would be more bombastic in delivery, she raps all of this like a late night radio host, which makes Room 25 a very interesting listen.
While “Self”, the album’s intro, made last week’s song list, songs like “Blaxploitation”, “Don’t Forget About Me”, and “Montego Bae” demonstrate the Chicago native’s emotional range and lyrical depth, as well as smart choices in collaborators. Room 25 boasts a very low key feature list, but the cuts feel as tangible as they are compelling to absorb.
Tha Carter V — Lil Wayne (September 28, 2018)
I didn’t think this album existed. I thought it was just a railing point for Weezy fans, something to clamor for at his shows. And if it did exist, it’d be bad. Dwayne Carter did not make great music between Tha Carter III and V, excluding some guest features and No Ceilings. Simply put: the better part of Lil Wayne’s career sounded like it was gone. And then, he got Birdman to give in and release Tha Carter V, and my interest was piqued.
There’s probably a version with Soulja Boy productions and Trinidad James features. This is an album that has probably changed so much over the 5 years that its existence has been rumored in the pop culture zeitgeist. In accord, this isn’t the same guy from Tha Carter III, taking a step back on the dick jokes and his normal bad habits, but keeping the standard word-drunk lyricism he’s known for. Lil Wayne shows he’s a student of the genre, both past and present throughout the album, but gets more personal on this run. There are the standard musings on fame, but also fatherhood and family in depth. It’s nice to know that a rapper who’s been around since 1999 still has a side to show the world.
5) K.T.S.E. — Teyana Taylor (June 22, 2018)
Teyana Taylor will always be a star. We’ve seen that for years, from her freshman effort to the “Fade” video. As previously discussed in our July coverage, K.T.S.E. is a short, but strong sophomore showing for the Harlem native. In true R&B fashion, the project leans heavily on the themes of sex (“Hurry”), love (“No Manners”), and relationships (“Gonna Love Me”, “Never Would Have Made It”). She sings of trust issues (“Issues/Hold On”), a ménage à trois (“3Way”), and a sexual freedom dance track that would make Janelle Monáe proud (“WTP”).
But where would we be without “Rose In Harlem”? The clear standout track, “Rose” sees Taylor processing her feelings of pain and betrayal, and steeling her heart for the future. “Don’t get caught up, young girl,” she warns. “It be the ones who swear they ride for you.” Despite his public antics, K.T.S.E. proved that Kanye not only still has his a killer ear for production, but that he knows his way around an R&B album, too.
4) Invasion of Privacy — Cardi B (April 6, 2018)
At this point, it’s nearly impossible to not know Cardi B. She’s been a juggernaut in the industry for almost three years now, from her smash debut single “Bodak Yellow” to her feature on Bruno Mars’ remix of “Finesse”. Many in her position would have rushed to put out an album as quickly as she blew up. But Cardi didn’t do that. She was patient, releasing her album at the tail end of her initial hype. And that calculus inevitably paid off with this fantastic debut.
Invasion of Privacy is a record that successfully combines bombastic trap rap with deeply personal cuts. It paints the picture of Cardi as strong, fierce, and independent, but also scorned and betrayed. She flips the bird to both her detractors and her philandering beau in this stellar debut LP.
3) Isolation — Kali Uchis (April 6, 2018)
It’s difficult to debut the same day as Cardi B. Her orbit absorbs so much media attention that her asking questions about taxes on Instagram became literal news. It’s even more difficult to debut on the same day and drop an arguably better album. Kali Uchis did this without breaking a sweat.
Isolation is a fascinating project, melding R&B, indie rock and electro pop together in ways that produce an easy, yet emotionally engaging listen. It’s as fun and laid back as it is depressing, and that’s not always easy to pull off. Cuts like “Dead To Me” take the pain and channel it into power anthems, while songs like “Flight 22” and “Your Teeth In My Neck” show the emotional honesty of this record, and make you feel the same.
2) Dirty Computer — Janelle Monáe (April 27, 2018)
A powerful force Cardi may be, but 2018 is for Janelle Monáe. After starring in two Oscar-nominated films and starting her own record label (featuring artists like Jidenna), the Q.U.E.E.N. came back to remind the world just how she got her name. And damn, this album is a religious experience from start to finish.
Dirty Computer continues the Afrofuturist themes commonly found in Monáe’s discography. However, this project also holds many intersectional themes such as feminism and LGBT+ issues. It boasts star-studded production work and features from Zoë Kravitz (“Screwed”), Pharrell Williams (“I Got The Juice”) and Grimes (“PYNK”). Thundercat, Stevie Wonder, and even the late Prince, have all contributed to this album! Monáe sings of coming out (“Don’t Judge Me”) and equality (“Americans”). She’s proven to be a talented rapper as well (“Django Jane”). All of this makes Dirty Computer a solid contender for Album of the Year.
1) DAYTONA — Pusha-T (May 25, 2018)
Pusha-T had a phenomenal year. He’s coming off his best-reviewed album to date. He married the love of his life. And he publicly dragged Drake, the biggest rapper on the planet, in a rap battle that he half-assed — just to show that he’s the superior wordsmith. For a veteran of two decades in the industry, it’s nearly impossible to keep your skills sharp enough to compete with the young talent. But this is King Push we’re talking about here, y’all! He “don’t sing hooks” — he drops BARS. He’s “too rare amongst all of this pink hair”. And proving Aubrey to be the meme he’s made himself out to be was child’s play at best.
DAYTONA edged its way to the top spot because it’s the most infectious album of the year. At seven tracks and barely 20 minutes long, it was damn near impossible to put down. Looping it repeatedly can get you through a workout and you’ll still feel ready to take on Frieza (or the Skrulls). Its Kanye-produced tracks leave you feeling like a badass every time. What more could you ask for?