The 10 Best Rap Albums Of 2019

At the end of 2019, rap is the most popular form of music in America, and maybe in the entire world. We know this. The data bears it out. But one thing that the data doesn’t quite show is us that rap, like every other genre of music in our atomized age, is not a monolith. Instead, it’s a loosely connected network of interconnected scenes and audiences, many of which probably disagree about what rap music even is. It’s ancient Greece: A vast and chaotic clutter of city-states, many of which are often at war with one another.

There is a center to rap — a mainstream, an Athens. At this point, that center is occupied by towering polymath vibe-absorbers like Drake and Travis Scott, both of whom excel at ingesting energy from the rest of the rap landscape and then channeling it back through their own largesse. But neither Drake nor Travis Scott was in album mode in 2019. Both of them made hits, but both were in down-cycles.

Indeed, most of the big current rap names, your Kendrick Lamars and Cardi Bs, didn’t release albums in 2019. (Some of the big names who did, like Chance The Rapper, managed to fall on their faces.) Because the centrist figures weren’t taking up too much of the airspace, artists and sounds from the periphery had a chance to storm through and claim their spots. DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion and “Old Town Road” took their moments to come out of nowhere and dominate.

Still, rap has never seemed as sprawled-out or disconnected as it does right now. Someone like the depressive Chicago pill-gobbler Lucki or the jagged and spluttering noisemaker JPEGMAFIA can be transcendent stars in some corners of the rap internet and total unknowns in others. That’s healthy, but it’s also maddening, since you can rest assured that there’s some amazing scene erupting somewhere that you won’t even hear about until it’s mostly done with.

Rap remains a youth-driven music, but we’ve also seen the emergence of a prestige-y middle class — rappers who get booked at rock festivals and play to their own audiences without bothering to engage with rap’s center or its constantly shifting edges. Some of those artists are on this list. Others, like Danny Brown or Denzel Curry, made very good albums that just didn’t excite me as much as some of the more chaotic stuff out there.

All year-end lists are entirely subjective, and this one in particular is dominated by my own personal preferences. It doesn’t line up with Stereogum’s overall year-end list, and it won’t line up with your list, either, if you have a list. It’s one perspective on another wild and impossible-to-pin-down year in rap history.

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10  Sauce Walka – New Sauce City (The Sauce Familia)

Longtime Houston underground fixture Sauce Walka has a great wildman bark, a larger-than-life and impossible-to-contain boom of a voice. For years, he’s been ripping Southern mixtape tracks to pieces, talking unreformed knucklehead shit and making powerful enemies. New Sauce City is a kind of thought experiment: How would that voice sound over classic New York-style beats? As it turns out, that voice would sound great. Ghostly jazz loops and boom-bap drums have always been friendly to supercharged characters, and Sauce Walka is nothing if not that.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

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Maxo Kream – Brandon Banks (RCA)

Brandon Banks opens with an open letter to a friend in prison. It ends with Maxo Kream reassuring his audience that he’s still selling drugs even after signing a seven-figure label deal. In between, things don’t get much lighter or less complicated. Maxo, the longtime Houston underground fixture, named his major-label debut album after the crime-life street name that his Nigerian-immigrant father adapted. It’s full of breathless story telling and dark, heavy-hearted reflection about living an entire life of stress and criminality. The rapping itself is masterful — hard and breathless and specific. Even when Maxo cuts loose, he sounds constricted. There’s always something at stake.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Megan Thee Stallion - Fever

Megan Thee Stallion – Fever (1501 Certified Ent.)

The Megan Thee Stallion persona is pure persona — a cold-blooded predator who will drain your pockets through the sheer force of her sex appeal. By just about every account, the actual human being Megan Pete is a tough and businesslike go-getter, a college student whose late mother helped hone her rap skills to absolute precision. But on Fever, Megan sells the hell out of the character that she’s invented. She delivers her provocations and put-downs with a colossal sneer, like she’s disgusted with you for the crime of not being more like her. Fever, assembled with the help of Three 6 Mafia legend Juicy J, is a collection of fundamentalist Southern rap bangers. It’s all there to present Megan as one of rap’s most exciting new stars. And since that’s exactly what she is, it’s light work for her.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

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Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana (Keep Cool/RCA)

Five years after they first teamed up, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib share the same unlikely chemistry. Gibbs is an earthy technical rapper with a limited, street-level focus, and Madlib is a maker of diffuse, vaporous, sample-dazed beats. They work so well together because they balance each other out. The constant twists and ruptures of Madlib’s tracks force Gibbs to keep shifting into different gears, while Gibbs’ drug-dealing tales give Madlib’s tracks a weight and immediacy that they often lack. This time around, the warmth and worn-in interplay of their combined sound is inviting enough to draw fellow vets like Pusha T and Yasiin Bey to the party, where they fight perfectly.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

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Young Thug – So Much Fun (300 Entertainment/Atlantic)

A few years ago, Young Thug was a lightly deranged cult-favorite outsider, a squeaky expressionist who seemed to delight in the ways his voice could twist trap music up into new forms. In 2019, those new forms are dominant. Thug’s oblique melodic sensibility and endless-scroll prolificacy are the coin of the realm. So Much Fun is his pop-star victory lap, a collection of hypnotically warped gibber-fests that already feel like standards. Thug has figured out how to be both strange and catchy on the largest possible stages. He has bent the world to his will. It’s a hell of a thing to see.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Sada Baby - Bartier Bounty

Sada Baby – Bartier Bounty (Asylum)

When it comes to the unhinged Detroit rap monster Sada Baby, the entire idea of the album is almost irrelevant. Sada Baby is best experienced via the YouTube video. He cranks out songs at an absurd pace, one or two per week, sometimes not even releasing them properly. Instead, he just pops up in your feed in low-budget clips that allow you to marvel at his voluminous beard and his absurdist dance moves. But when heard at album-length, as on Bartier Bounty, his gruff shit-talk and left-field punchlines become undeniable. Bartier Bounty isn’t a cohesive artistic statement, but it doesn’t need to be. Instead, it’s an hour of dizzy bangers from one of the best people doing it.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

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DaBaby – Baby On Baby (South Coast Music Group/Interscope)

DaBaby became a star in 2019 even though he goes against practically every prevailing trend in rap. He’s wacky and glib rather than numbly emotional, choppy rather than melodic, technically virtuosic rather than mushmouthed. It didn’t matter. DaBaby’s larger-than-life personality, his revved-motor energy, and his gifts for cranked-up hooks and viral silliness overwhelmed every obstacle, making for one of the feel-good rap stories of 2019. Baby On Baby, DaBaby’s major-label debut, is almost Ramones-like in its single-minded efficiency — cramming 13 dizzily catchy tracks into half an hour, with no time for subtlety or introspection, and smashing through your skepticism like a runaway rhino.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

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Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats – Anger Management (Sugar Trap)

Rico Nasty contains multitudes; she can do candy-colored pop-trap and emotive rap balladry just fine. But on Anger Management, her collaboration with the great thud-blat producer Kenny Beats, we get the best version of Rico Nasty. Anger Management is adrenaline-charged mosh music that never lets up except to knowingly hijack an iconic Jay-Z hit. Rico brings the righteous chaos, barking and gnashing and devouring the rickety splatter-beats that Kenny feeds her. Along with that skittering, bloodthirsty energy, we also get some top-shelf shit-talk: “I got bitches on my dick, and I ain’t even got a dick.” 19 minutes of this is all you get, but 19 minutes is enough to scramble your brain.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

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billy woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places (Backwoodz Studioz)

Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica is a vast, abstract hell — a dense and emapthic depiction of violence and pain. It’s an image of a place where reason no longer has any place, where suffering is the only reality. Hiding Places, then, is a rap Guernica, a jagged and breathtaking image of life during wartime. This time, it’s our own ongoing civil war: Capitalism against poor America, racism against black America. There’s no bombing, but billy woods splutters precisely and elegantly about drained bank accounts and insurers refusing to cover treatments, while Kenny Segal’s beats map out those anxieties with ambient foghorns and off-kilter drum eruptions. Crush, kill, destroy, stress.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

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Polo G – Die A Legend (Columbia)

It’s beautiful. That’s the thing you need to understand. Twenty-year-old Chicago native Polo G is working in forms you’ll recognize: drill, Atlanta trap, blurry singsong ooze. But his take on these sounds resonates because of how finely crafted it is. The melodies float and drift with a hypnotic sort of grace. The lyrics economically sketch out the traumatic effects of seeing your friends die young and of knowing that it could easily happen to you, too. The beats build on sad, glinting sounds — pianos, acoustic guitars, stomach-rumble 808 thuds. It all amounts to mesmeric, soul-crushed circa-now blues music, the sound of a young man contemplating ugly and bleak realities without letting those realities drown him. Plenty of 2019 rap albums were more writerly, more aesthetically adventurous, or more fundamentally sound than Die A Legend. But none moved me more.

HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Listen to a playlist of key tracks from each album on Spotify.


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