Looking back on 2019 it feels like it was a transition year. Certain sounds have been dominating for a minute now and while that standard continued, we also got some new and different styles along with the breakthrough of multiple artists celebrating a vintage aesthetic. All this seems to be signaling a shift in the culture. 2019 may not have had the quantity of solid releases that 2018 did but it certainly matched, if not exceeded, last year as far as quality.
Note: As of this writing Purple Haze 2 hasn’t dropped yet and Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, Born 2 Rap and Blood Cuzzins are all in constant rotation and may or may not have been included if I wrote this list 3 months from now.
The One Spot
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Sometimes there is a clear winner for album of the year and in 2019 it’s without a doubt Bandana. The chemistry is solidified this time and the result is a perfect collaboration as Gangsta Gibbs effortlessly navigates the sonic playground envisioned by the Beat Konducta. Whether spitting the rapid-fire of an early Jay-Z (“Flat Tummy Tea”), the elder statesmen style of Scarface (“Soul Right”) or the crooning of a silk shirt R&B singer (“Gat Damn”), Freddie Gibbs is easily the most diverse rapper in the game right now, and on Bandana we get everything, with Madlib providing his signature dusty drums and deep crate samples. Gibbs floats on “Giannis”, while Anderson .Paak’s eerie vocals perfectly complement the haunting keys. “Practice” is a somber reflection about ruining a relationship over a Donny Hathaway sample while still having gems like “how you complain about the price when you getting everything fronted?” Pusha T delivers a verse-of-the-year contender on “Palmolive” which is built off a signature Madlib beat, something that makes no sense when you first hear it but over time clicks when the brilliance of the sample chopping finally comes to light. It’s madness but it’s beautiful. For me personally the best song is “Cataracts”, as Freddie showcases all his strengths in two reflective verses over a heavenly soul sample and then effortlessly switches his flow at the beat flip for the third verse.
Speaking of beat changes, there are many on this album along with the standard Madlib interludes fusing together the tracks. If you can find it (and it’s definitely out there), the “Director’s Cut” version of the album is superior as it maintains the same tracklist but has different skits that provide a more seamless transition between songs. While subtle, it makes a huge difference for the overall feel of the album. It’s not often that this happens, where everything just comes together perfectly, but what Freddie Gibbs and Madlib did here will no doubt go down as a classic and that’s why Bandana takes the top slot for 2019.
The Two Spot
Tsu Surf – Seven 25
Newark’s own Tsu Surf pours his heart out on Seven 25, a project named after the day he got shot and almost died. From discussing his moral code (“see me with a teller that’s only to take the funds out”) to just dropping straight up slick lines (“spent a couple bands on another ‘where you find that?’”), everything here feels authentically autobiographical (“my mother found the pound and the strap with the bodies”). I could really do this entire write up just highlighting the endless quotes on this album as Surf never takes a bar off, but it’s not just lyrics, his passion is felt in every word of every line. He’s not someone who’s here for the fame or jewelry, he’s just trying to survive, as on “Me or You” when he admits “wanna cop the rollie, but the hood need choppers more”. Few rappers get to Surf’s level of self-reflection in their music. He continuously drops in lessons from his mother and grandmother (“hoes keep ya dick hard, but home be where the dinner at”) while also spitting words of wisdom (“they gon’ love you or hate you whether you saint or you sinnin’”). The production is mostly driven either by beautiful piano lines like on the title track or vocal samples that lay the foundation Surf’s street gospels as is the case on “Killing Me”. Guests include Mozzy and Benny the Butcher, along with the OG Beanie Sigel (“old Beans for the homi”). There are female-centric tracks, “What Changed” and “Double Life”, along with the sprinkling in of relationship advice (“if she don’t know if you ate today, then she ain’t for you”).
There isn’t a better rap album this year. By that, I mean rap in its purest form. The hunger and the pain are felt in every bar with pictures painted so vividly they border on terrifying (“body still twitchin’, spooky how we hit him it look like the game glitchin’”). While other albums may be more “enjoyable”, Seven 25 deserves some real attention in order to soak up game and remember that it wasn’t just parties but also pain that birthed the culture of hip hop. It’s fun to vibe out on something laid back or turn up to hype shit but as PUSH! Montana once said, “as long as there’s gangsta shit in the streets that’s going on, there’s gon’ be gangsta shit in these songs”.
The Three Spot
Lucky Daye – Painted
The most complete and well-crafted R&B project of the year belongs to Lucky Daye. This expansive collection of songs brings together the passion, yearning, regret and happiness of life. While other albums this year focused on a theme and had a particular sound, Painted doesn’t stay inside any one box as it ranges from new age Prince-influenced funk to quiet storm desperation. When he isn’t pulling at your feelings he’s providing the soundtrack for top-down freeway drives and songs you share with the woman you can’t get enough of. To kick things off, “Roll Some Mo” sets the tone with Lucky inviting you to ride along with him. Once you’re hooked he kicks it up into a celebration with feel-good songs “Late Night” and “Extra”.
The mood music really begins with “Concentrate”, a string-driven ballad which highlights Lucky Daye’s vocals. The ease with which he hits notes and the smoothness of his voice really stand out, and that’s what takes this project to the next level. The way he reinterprets a Ginuwine hit on “Karma” and questions a troubled relationship on “Misunderstood” are also what set him apart from other R&B artists. The runs on the distressed “Floods” put you in the storm of emotions he’s feeling while “Try Your Fire” pulsates with blissful confidence. “Real Games” is the shining jewel, a song in which the verses, hook and breakdown are all distinct and yet all flow together naturally. It goes from funky to swooning before turning into a rally cry and then fading off after a slick third verse. There’s really something for everyone on Painted whether it’s dance floor bangers or simp anthems. We even get that classic ballad with a spoken intro to close everything out as this project is both fresh and mature with its sound. Lucky Daye is an extremely talented songwriter as well as a gifted singer and Painted focuses both into something you’ll keep coming back to and having a different favorite song each time. There are many great R&B albums out right now but none are as satisfying as Painted and if there’s one record that really showcases how great music as a whole is right now, it’s this one.
The Four Spot
Ari Lennox – Shea Butter Baby
With her unique voice conveying the sage-burning reflections of a young woman trying to figure out life, Ari Lennox delivers a soulfully blunted album that is the definition of a “vibe”. Throughout the project she does everything from question if her sex drive is too high to both celebrating and lamenting the lack of furniture in her apartment. For anyone who fondly remembers what was dubbed the “neo-soul” era, this record has sprinkles of that sound and is bold yet still introverted. “BMO” makes no secret of what Ari Lennox wants from a man over an updated version of classic Busta Rhymes track and “Pop” masks its filthiness with a beautifully stripped-down innocent sound. “New Apartment” is a clear highlight for anyone who can relate to the feeling of having just enough to get your own place, being too broke to furnish it, but not caring because the freedom to leave clothes on the ground is better than money.
On every song Ms. Lennox’s voice is poignant and gripping, while the backdrop of her musical sound is soothing yet funky, utilizing simple drum beats, lush keys, and strong horns. She travels through various powerful vocal runs on what is actually a very relaxed sounding “Up Late” while the title track employs a rougher sound yet the music never overpowers as she matches it with her voice. “Whipped Cream” is carried by an upbeat pulse but the vocals still ride the track like a smooth wave as Ms. Lennox uses her own powerful instrument to complain about her ex, especially in the infectious bridge. The closer is a horn-driven culmination of everything the album’s provided, from solid harmonies to soulful production to the strong leading vocals of a new shining star. Shea Butter Baby is one of those albums that keeps the same energy from start to finish and while it’s not a concept album it very much has a unified theme and that makes it the perfect package, radiating with the smoothest of barefoot soul on every song.
The Five Spot
Snoh Aalegra – Ugh, those feels again
Snoh Aalerga’s album is best described as something you get lost in. While it ranges from spacey vibe music to straight-up hip hop, once you’re hypnotized by her sound it carries you through the entire record. Featuring the backdrop of No I.D. combining sultry soul and hard-hitting drums, the beautiful vocals from Ms. Aalegra are what really bring this album to another level. “I Want You Around” is light and simple but sets the tone of the record as Snoh reveals her preference for beach shoes, an ordinary day, and listening to Innervisions on replay. After the seductive “Situationship” come the first two highlights, “Whoa”, which will put you in a trance with both its beat and the flowing hook and “Find Someone Like You”, which feels like a late-night jazz club but is still powerful enough to make a statement. “Charleville 9200, Pt. II” is a rollercoaster ride of a song with its guitar-backed hook in which Snoh cries “why you take me up this high, just to put a hole in my parachute”.
You get every emotion on this album including the finale which is an uplifting if somewhat conflicted, declaration that “I Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love”. On this triumphantly beautiful closer, the songstress lets herself get lost in the moment, her voice breaking from a controlled serenade and instead just passionately belting out all her feelings, perfectly summing up the album’s title of Ugh – those feels again. Between the seasoned sound of the vocals and the fresh-yet-still-classic production, Snoh Aalegra delivers a beautifully crafted record that touches on every emotion and through it all, feels like you’re curled up by a warm fire.
The Six Spot
Chris Brown – Indigo
While music has been trending toward shorter albums with an emphasis on quality over quantity, Chris Brown has proven yet again that he can deliver both as he packs a double-disc full of greatness. Indigo is another phenomenal effort and further adds to the argument that Breezy is not only a master songmaker and incredible singer but also the greatest entertainer of our generation. With 35 songs it’s pretty much expected that you’ll get a little bit of everything but what’s so stunning is how solid each track is. The songs range from upbeat (the title track) to remorseful (“Sorry Enough”) to vocally driven sonnets (“Don’t Check on Me”) to party anthems (“Temporary Lover”) to dance songs (“Back to Love”) to just pure fire (“Come Together”). Guests contribute but never outshine the star, such as Juicy J and Juvenile lending their talents to “Emerald / Burgundy”. In fact, this album is really more than 35 songs as there’s several instances where 2 songs are combined, oftentimes with the second song being just as strong, if not stronger (“No Judgment” and “Aura” being the best examples of this). “No Guidance” was the definitive song of the summer and the leadoff single “Undecided” successfully reboots the catchy hook from Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile”. Always a student of the game, Chris Brown borrows the iconic Neptunes lunchroom-table drums from “Grindin” for the aforementioned “Sorry Enough” and runs through a slew of R&B classics on “Early 2K”.
In an era of short albums and even shorter attention spans it’s especially impressive that Breezy fashioned a double album that doesn’t feel like a chore to get through and has tremendous replay value. While it might seem overwhelming at first, you’ll be left wanting more when the album is finished (which you can get – he gave us an extra 10 tracks back in October, which are also fire, particularly “Technology”, “Going At It” and, the appropriately named, “Overtime”).
The Seven Spot
22Gz – The Blixky Tape
Hyped up street anthems make this debut tape from Brooklyn’s 22Gz one of the catchiest albums of the year as he blasts through The Blixky Tape with infectious energy. A young star in the making, 22Gz is full of vigor, delivering an onslaught of gun raps over lively production that never slows down for the entirety of this project. New York has always been great at making anthems and this tape is full of them as pretty much every hook is bound to get stuck in your head and would be appropriate to yell out while throwing bottles across the room in celebration (“Man Down”, “Crime Rate” and “Rap Sheet” all being prime examples). This isn’t just a one-note record though as on the “King of NY” 22Gz recounts the time he spent inside Florida following a highly publicized gun battle and swoons about his main chick on “On Me”.
As someone’s who clearly trying to take the right path in life, this tape is the sounds of an up and comer who’s spent years on the streets honing his skills to become a solid MC. It’s very much a modern-day rap record with endless adlibs and repetitive beats but unlike other projects that come and go from forgettable rappers, The Blixky Tape doesn’t have a single bad song on it and 22Gz has a charisma that you only get from a select few. This whole tape is full of highlights but “Timing” and “Spin the Block” are two of the best. The former will have you doing the two-step while the latter finds 22Gz teaming up with Kodak Black over a haunting and menacing beat that utilizes the same sample as a vintage Wu-Tang posse cut. “Chandelier” has an ominous sound that is similar to the Migos “Deadz” and “Salary” showcases the diversity in 22Gz’s flow. New York rap will always be relevant and it’s great to see a young artist such as 22Gz coming up and keeping the streets hot with this brand of rap. He’s got all the energy and talent to become the next superstar and this tape is proof that he’s a hitmaker.
The Eight Spot
J Balvin/Bad Bunny – OASIS
This one isn’t easy to write about since I’m ignorant and only speak English, therefore, I can’t understand a single word they’re saying on this. That said, I had this album on repeat all summer. Sounding like the fusing of Latino and Reggaeton, what J Balvin and Bad Bunny created on OASIS is, for me, the definition of feel-good outdoor party music. The album starts with the powerful “MOJAITA” which has what feels like the traditional reggaeton beat and gives you a good impression of what’s to come. “YO LE LLEGO” showcases the range and power of both singers over a slithering track that lets you know this won’t just be one long song of an album but a diverse collection of Latino music.
Easily the highlight, “QUÉ PRETENDES”, is a cross between seductive and fun as its upbeat soulfulness and lush vocals make it the standout anthem. While there’s a variety of styles on this project, from the late-night chill vibe of “LA CANCIÓN” and the breeziness of “COMO UN BEBÉ” to the damn near hardcore thumping of “CUIDADO POR AHÍ”, everything flows together so well, and each transition is a welcomed change from one track to the next. OASIS is short (only 30 minutes), but it’s something you can keep on repeat for a couple of hours because of how different each track is. J Balvin and Bad Bunny are both exceptionally talented, with each having a unique style they bring to the music while also feeding off each other as a strong duo. Whether you’re at a backyard cookout or beachside, these two have blessed with us with the perfect soundtrack to any outdoor celebration as OASIS is a quintessential summer album, full of fun songs to make any party hype.
The Nine Spot
Little Brother – May the Lord Watch
The unexpected release of May the Lord Watch provided the (somewhat) reunion of one of the most influential and well-respected groups of the new millennium. Almost like they never left (it’s been a decade since their last release), Phonte and Big Pooh proved their chemistry is very much still alive on this grown-man’s rap album. For a duo that’s always made music that felt mature this album is especially appropriate for those teetering in mid-life as both rappers are pushing 40. Maturity doesn’t mean a lack of fun as the skits the group’s been known for are present and brilliantly executed, particularly in the transition between “Inside the Producer’s Studio” and “Sittin’ Alone”. The latter track is an exploration of the feelings of the old man at the club, realizing that his time has passed for this life and embracing the idea of being at home with family. “Black Magic” is a thumping ode to greatness and “Goodmorning Sunshine” is a simple concept track but as always the two MCs showcase their veteran rap skills to discuss the topic.
There’s no 9th Wonder production but this still feels very much like a Little Brother album as Big Pooh and Phonte both haven’t lost a step, with the latter successfully dropping ridiculous rhyme schemes like “Nolan Ryan / soldiers dyin’ / shoulder cryin’ / Cobra Kai’n (trust, it all connects lyrically). Backed by pure rap skills and humor in both the bars and the skits, fun-loving mature hip hop is still sounding fresh in 2019. We’re thankful these guys decided to link back up for this much-needed reunion as May the Lord Watch feels like breath of fresh air in the genre even as it’s coming from two seasoned veterans.
The Ten Spot
Crooked I (KXNG Crooked) – The Weeklys
This is somewhat cheating, but if we’re talking best of the year then this absolutely has to get mentioned. Every Friday since the beginning of January, Kxng Crooked (formerly Crooked I), has released a song. Each time the beat is a repurposed classic and he has proceeded to rip every single track to shreds. We constantly give credit to artists who are able to drop multiple projects in a year but to release a song a week and for each one to be a 4-minute lyrical onslaught without burning out is wildly impressive. Crook has always been a rapper’s rapper and while some of these tracks contain hooks there’s a lot that are just him spitting straight bars throughout the whole thing. Between his rapid-fire flow and clever wordplay alone it’s been quite the feat to witness. But in addition to his Hall of Fame level technical skills it’s clear he wrote and recorded these in real-time as this collection also functions as a time capsule for the year with news and other trending topics being mentioned so as to remind you what was happening during those seven days.
Some of the highlights including “Pistol Grip”, “Up2TheSun” and “Bar’d Up”, and that’s just within the first 3 months. As Crook’s level of skill is such that he can carry on one rhyme scheme for multiple bars I won’t bother to drop any quotes here but pick any one of the tracks and there’s no doubt you’ll be pulling back multiple lines trying to keep up with all the dope shit he says. This is top-notch lyricism from one of the game’s best spitters and as far as rapping goes there aren’t many better when it comes to pure skill. Some people think lyrics are dead, but Crooked I spent the entire year proving that bars are still very much alive and well.
Anderson .Paak – Ventura (“Jet Black” is the one)
Moneybagg Yo – 43VA HEARTLESS (melodies are fire, overall strong album)
Rick Ross – Port of Miami 2 (he rarely disappoints and this is no exception)