Which regions had the hottest music scenes this year?
To some degree, the internet has rendered physical location meaningless. Collaborations are more frequently constructed miles, rather than feet, apart. Sounds and flows are exchanged rapidly between artists who bond over likemindedness rather than physical proximity. Groups and crews composed of wildly varied individuals form online and then manifest IRL in a centralized location (just look at Brockhampton).
But in recent years, the internet's effect on de-regionalization has been a bit exaggerated. The great de-regionalizer, after all, has always been fame. Having a centralized network of studios, performance spaces, and creatives is what's always ensured that New York, LA, Chicago, and in modern rap's case, Atlanta will maintain their status as cultural strongholds. It's invigorating to see more grassroots scenes pop up without comparable resources— look at last year's South Florida SoundCloud rap boom— but those are the exception, not the rule. More often than not, stars bred in local scenes soon outgrow them and almost inevitably drawn to one hub or another (more often than not, LA).
This, and not the internet, is the reason that we can't really call Kanye West a Chicago rapper anymore. It feels unfair to Chitown's thriving underground, who populate their lyric with references to the city's unique landmarks, climate, and class divides, to lump in a guy who hasn't rapped about the windy city at length since 2007's Graduation. For some similar cases: Lil Wayne has been a Miami rapper for at least 10 years, Mac Miller was as definitive to L.A.'s current sound as anyone else since leaving Pittsburgh, and Freddie Gibbs has similarly become an LA émigré since leaving his hometown of Gary, Indiana years ago.
Keeping all of this in mind, we present to you our Top 5 hip hop regions of 2018.
Tay Keith - Image by HNHH
(2017 ranking: N/A)
By keeping the rankings at five, there's always a free spot not occupied by any of the Big 4 cities. Last year, Toronto nabbed up the fifth spot with Drake's More Life and The Weeknd's Starboy breaking chart records left and right, and Nav and Daniel Caesar sneaking in as the city's fresh newcomers. This year, Drake still dominated charts, but it was an off year for nearly everyone else in the city. A big reason for Drake's continued radio dominance in 2018? One Tay Keith. Of Drake's nine top-five hits on the Billboard Hot 100 this year, the Memphis-based Keith produced three: Blocboy JB and Drake's "Look Alive," Travis Scott and Drake's "Sicko Mode," and Drake's own "Nonstop."
Keith rose alongside another Memphis upstart, Blocboy JB, who got his first big moment in the spotlight with the aforementioned "Look Alive," but has persisted in popular culture this year thanks in part to an excellent album, SIMI, but mostly his creation of a dance that was stolen by the makers of the wildly popular game Fortnite. The "Shoot" move is now omnipresent in sports and wherever teens can be found, and it's a damn shame that more people won't hear Blocboy's exuberant voice because of it.
The city's other breakout star this year was Moneybagg Yo, a gruff-voiced rapper who's been grinding on the mixtape circuit since 2012, but hit it big this year with two tapes and a debut album, Reset (not to mention the collab project he put out with NBA Youngboy last November). Yo isn't quite a household name quite yet, but you don't attract J. Cole and Future guest spots if you're not blowing the fuck up.
Let we forget, Young Dolph continued to hold it down as well this year, delivering the N****s Get Shot Everyday tape and the Role Model album. And guess who' produced for both Moneybagg and Dolph this year? You got it, Tay Keith.
4. New York
Cardi B - Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
(2017 ranking: 4)
Did anyone have a bigger year than Cardi B? Naysayers were projecting a downtick after a breakout 2017 on the back of "Bodak Yellow," but Cardi shut down all her doubters by delivering a great debut album and two more number one singles, not to mention endless tabloid fodder. The girl was born to be a star, and as her recent "Money" video shows, she's not going to slow down anytime soon.
Virally speaking, the next big thing out of New York this year was undoubtedly the currently-incarcerated Tekashi 6ix9ine, who would've made massive waves this year even if he had not released any music. The Bushwick native's every move seemed calculated for mass outcry, and even after securing guest spots from Nicki Minaj and Kanye West, continued to outshine his musical output. While we're on the subject, Nicki also had a year in which her off-record moments seemed to attract more attention than her album, Queen, which kept her in the conversation throughout 2018.
In terms of those who were in it "just for the music," A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Jay Critch, and Dave East all kept their noses to the grindstones and had fairly-to-very successful years. A$AP Rocky got weirder but no less compelling on Testing. Looking forward into 2019, Harlem youngster Smooky Margielaa will be one to watch.
Juice WRLD - Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
(2017 ranking: N/A)
The prevailing storyline in Chicago over the past decade has been that of two dominant scenes: drill and the after-school poetry indie rap scene. Years after Chief Keef first racked up his first million Youtube views and Chance The Rapper made 10 Day, we're still seeing the scenes that they wrought distort and multiply in fascinating ways. The drill diaspora has splintered into a million interesting pieces, from G Herbo's motor-mouthed versatility (his only 2018 project came alongside Atlanta's Southside) to Lil Durk's continually-compelling auto-drill.
But perhaps Keef's biggest stylistic offspring this year has been Juice WRLD, a Chi-based youngster who's leaned even further into the bubblegum/emo melodic stylings that Keef's often trafficked in. That's led Juice to massive chart and streaming success off of "All Girls Are the Same' and "Lucid Dreams," as well as collaborations with everyone from Future to Panic at the Disco's Brendan Urie.
As far Chance's collaborators and stylistic offspring go, Saba, Mick Jenkins, and NoName have led the charge this year with a ridiculously compelling album to each of their names (though NoName might be on the verge of being called an LA rapper now?). This scene's undergone less abrupt and drastic stylistic changes than drill, but instead finds each of its artists burrowing deeper into their own backstories and instrumental preferences, allowing for a rich tapestry of individuality.
Somewhere in between both of these exist Valee and ZMoney, two technically gifted flowsmiths who are too weird for the mainstream and too flossy for the underground. With his GOOD signing, Valee's the one who's gotten more shine to date, but both of these nimble-voiced ChaseTheMoney devotees are talents to watch going forward.
Nipsey Hussle - Jerritt Clark/Getty Images
(2017 ranking: 3)
Probably the most consistent city in hip hop since NWA first put it on the map, LA always seems to churn out quality music from both lifelong locals and recent newcomers. Among the old guard, Nipsey Hussle put together what felt like a career-spanning work with Victory Lap, which makes no concessions for crossover attempts but clearly solidified him as one of the most underrated talents of the last decade. Aging just as gracefully is Jay Rock, whose surprise hit "King's Dead" garnered more attention, but whose album Redemption guaranteed that he'll never lose his Watts realness, no matter how catchy he sounds doing it. Though considerably younger, Vince Staples leveled up into even more of an old soul with FM!, a neighborhood-centric mini-album that's as wise as anything that's ever come out of LBC.
We lost Mac Miller this year, but not before he gave us Swimming, arguably the most rich and complete collection of music in his discography. Mac may have been born and started his career in Pittsburgh, but what with his now-famous house studio and collaborations with a ton of LA talents, he's made more of a mark on the city's breezy sound than almost any other Cali-based producer in recent memory. Speaking of Mac's LA affiliates, how about Earl Sweatshirt and The Internet continuing to diversify the former Odd Future diaspora? Some Rap Songs and Hive Mind are two of 2018's finest albums and show minds at work outside of the social media-sphere in a very refreshing way. Also in that vein is Anderson .Paak's Oxnard, a slightly disappointing sophomore album that nevertheless trounces most of the competition in the R&B/funk field.
As far as newcomers go, 03 Greedo and Draeko The Ruler had career years, before both tragically headed behind bars before the end of 2018. Two avant-garde stylists with an acute knowledge of LA traditions as well as vibrant palettes of hand-picked stylings from other regions, both dudes were poised to make even more noise before their untimely jailing. Free both, ASAP. Also shout out to Shoreline Mafia, a collective we'll be hearing much more from next year.
And last but not least, how about Tyga? Dude's now the rap game equivalent of a cockroach, able to survive any slump or scandal. His singles "Taste," "Swish," and "Dip" all exceeded expectations and yet again silenced those who said it was all over for T-Raww.
Lil Baby and Gunna - Image by HNHH
(2017 ranking: 2)
In a rare occurrence, a banner year for South Florida kept ATL out of the top spot last year, but a wildly varied and astonishingly dominant year is enough to catapult Georgia's hub back into complete dominance. Where to start? Let's shout out the two main breakout stars: Gunna and Lil Baby, of "Sold Out Dates" insanity and Drip Harder chemistry. Both kicked off the year with great projects in their own right, but neither could predict what'd come by year's end: a guest spot on a Mariah Carey song, not one but two Drake features, chart success, a second (great) Lil Baby album. These two Young Thug devotees are both in the top five of any 2018 breakout rappers list, and they just so happen to be best friends.
Working backwards, youngest to oldest, we saw thrilling sophomore and junior albums (more or less, give or take a few early tapes) from the likes of Playboi Carti, 21 Savage, JID, Rich The Kid, and Key!, rappers who all have very little in common except for their area codes. JID arose to the spot of the city' best lyrical technician, Carti became an avant-punk vibesmith, Rich The Kid finally got his big hit, 21 evolved far beyond his early "murder music," and Key! partnered with the hottest producer of 2018, Kenny Beats, for the year's most underrated album (777).
Slightly above them sit guys like Young Thug, Future, and Metro Boomin, all of whom had slightly nontraditional years, whether due to focusing on A&R duties, soundtracks, or even announcing very brief hiatuses or retirements. Off-year? Maybe by their crazy standards, but any year that gives us On The Rvn, Slime Language, Beast Mode 2, and Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a success by any other metric. Migos and Gucci Mane were in similar boats, neither having the type of world-conquering presence we've come to expect from them, but both with decently well-received albums to their names.
The biggest Atlanta surprises of the year? How about Trouble's Edgewood and Childish Gambino's "This is America"? The former has toiled in the trenches for years before putting together a vivid and compelling full-length with Mike Will, and the latter spent the past few years getting famous for everything but rapping (see: Atlanta and Awaken My Love) before riding a firebrand video to a #1 single.
As far as we can see, this city will continue to set the pace for rap stardom and trends for the foreseeable future.