2018: hip-hop's commercial and pop culture appeal hits an all-time high
Hip-hop has never been more commercially viable than it is in 2018. There is a thriving underground movement, the biggest stars are at the apex of their powers, and the genre boasts some of the most recognizable faces in the industry. Though 2018 is not yet over, the past year has already been filled with a number of high profile releases and memorable moments, perhaps none more so than the beef between Pusha T and Drake. On the seamlessly pure and airtight Daytona, the first of five albums to emerge from Kanye West’s Wyoming recording sessions, Pusha basked in brevity and production that fit his fearlessness. The underlying cravings for confrontation came to a head with the malicious “The Story of Adidon,” a track that continues to saturate the public discourse five-plus months after its release. It was the perfect storm: Pusha stood toe-to-toe with Drake, laughed in the face of decorum, and surgically dismantled the biggest rapper on the face of the planet with unsettling ease. In choosing to focus on Drake’s character and personal relationships, Pusha blew his opponent’s cover and tarnished his image in a way that no other competitor had done before. “The Story of Adidon” was the kind of cold-blooded record that would put any other rapper six feet under.
Although the altercation revealed chinks in Drake’s armor, he ultimately won the war, continuing his nine-year monopoly of the Billboard charts. His double album Scorpion didn't exactly impress as a cohesive body of work, but “God’s Plan,”“Nice For What,” and “In My Feelings” spent a grand total of six months on top of the Hot 100, one of the most impressive individual stretches in music history. Having just announced plans to get to work on a new album once his “Aubrey & the Three Migos Tour” wraps up, it appears that Drake has no plans of letting up any time soon.
Elsewhere, Jay-Z and Beyonce released Everything Is Love, an album that examined the power couple’s cult of personality through the lens of opulence. Far beyond the honeymoon phase, their liberating public vow renewal culminated in tales of resilience, sustainability, and lavish love. Brockhampton, the self-described boy band and most exciting group in hip-hop, maintained the momentum that they achieved with the sublime Saturation trilogy and dropped iridescence, a mishmash of influences pummeled into a collection of scatterbrain sights and sounds. On the highly-anticipated Astroworld, Travis Scott embraced his role as hip hop’s next great orchestrator and put together a project that felt like his most magnificent symphony to date. Laced with just enough ad-libs and Houston flair, the album played into the amusement park motif, creating a surreal ride full of druggy trips and heart-racing, whiplash surges of adrenaline. J. Cole’s K.O.D. dealt with issues of addiction, infidelity, fame, and over-indulgence but with a twist that mirrored modern rap’s much-discussed generation gap. The feverishly anticipated Black Panther soundtrack, curated by Kendrick Lamar and director Ryan Coogler, was a historical moment that not only embodied the heart and soul of Wakanda, but also served as a box office sized reminder of “hip hop’s emergence as the primary driving force in popular culture.” Throughout Die Lit, Pi'erre Bourne, the mad scientist responsible for concocting "Magnolia" and "wokeuplikethis*,” whipped up an intoxicating spread of onomatopoeic effects, 8-bit melodies, 808 patterns, and ambient noises to accompany the torrid onslaught of ad-libs that have become Playboi Carti's modus operandi. Mac Miller’s Swimming found the young artist exploring his heartbreak and fragile mental state through self-deprecating humor, all the while trying to keep his head above water. Kids See Ghosts’ self-titled release featured two artists reclaiming their peace, as Kanye’s boisterous vocal performances were deftly mixed with Cudi’s otherworldly howls and soothing hums. Cardi B continued her bloody-shoed Billboard chart run, proving she was more than just a novelty act or a rookie with a hot song. Beyond Cardi’s Invasion of Privacy and Nicki Minaj’s Queen, 2018 featured an improved representation of women in hip hop: Tierra Whack turned heads with her avant-garde visual album Whack World; Rico Nasty fused sugar trap with death metal on Nasty; CupcakKe’s Ephorize was both riotously funny and x-rated; and Noname’s transcendent Room 25 revealed profound internal transformation. To top it all off, Childish Gambino’s thought-provoking “This Is America” became one of the hottest songs of the summer, Kevin Gates was released from prison and made a triumphant return with Chained to the City EP and Luca Brasi Story 3, Eminem returned to the fold to address critics on Kamikaze, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V finally saw the light of day, and Kendrick Lamar won a Grammy. We're not even done yet.
Care For Me,Saba’s eulogy for his fallen cousin and crew member John Walt, was elaborate and sprawling in its refusal to settle for banality. Denzel Curry’s three-act concept albumTA13OO yielded the raw hardcore hip-hop that fans have come to appreciate, and proved that he’s only gotten better with each release. On the long-awaited Victory Lap, Nipsey Hussle was both parts self-made hustler and motivational speaker, stringing together gruff and detail-filled aspirational raps. Dev Hyne’s Negro Swan, released under solo project moniker Blood Orange, was sensitive and radical in wrestling with racial identity. SiR, the wunderkind with writing credits for Anita Baker, Jill Scott, Tyrese, and Latoya Luckett, channeled his lackadaisical vocals to produce the serene funk of November. Riding the viral success of “Mo Bamba,” Sheck Wes released MUDBOY, a slew of coming-of-age tales ensconced in murky trap. Lil Baby and Gunna experienced breakout success, becoming ones-to-watch and breathing new life into Atlanta trap. West coast R&B group The Internet, founded in 2011 by two members of Odd Future, showed greater depth onHive Mind with a blend of soul, jazz, and hip hop. The Weeknd sought solace in the past on My Dear Melancholy, an album full of sordid singing and hopelessly moving production. Just like the original, Future’s Beast Mode 2 was produced entirely by beat-maker Zaytoven and was marred by emotional and psychological turmoil that unearthed new creative spoils.