Last year, it felt like almost every heavy hitter in hip hop released something new. This year, that was less the case (though there were still a handful of heavy hitters), but there was still no shortage of great rap and R&B albums and a handful of newer artists got a chance to shine. DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion were rap’s two rookies of the year, and they both figured out how to reframe old school Southern rap in a way that fits in perfectly with the rap that’s on the radio today. (And both of them are now frequently on the radio today.) Established artists like Tyler the Creator, Solange, Earl Sweatshirt, and Danny Brown went in exciting, experimental new directions. And it feels like, more than ever, there’s a cross pollination between US rap and R&B and other music from around the world, be it grime, reggae, Latin trap, Afro-pop, or something else entirely. It’s hard to sum it all up with a list of just 30 albums (which, like anyone’s list, is of course affected by my personal biases), but I think even this small sample size shows that so much is going on right now within rap, R&B, and other adjacent styles of music. There’s everything from ’90s New York hip hop worship to abstract psychedelic soul, from underground rap lifers to pop superstars, and beyond. Read on for the list and feel free to argue or agree in the comments…
30. Rod Wave – Ghetto Gospel
Rod Wave has long been compared to Kevin Gates, and eventually Gates took Rod under his wing, executive produced his new album Ghetto Gospel, and rapped on two songs on it. If Gates is a rapper who sometimes sounds like a soul singer, then Rod is his foil, a soul singer who sometimes sounds like a rapper. And he really does sing. This isn’t auto-tuned sing-rapping; Rod has a powerful, bluesy grit that’ll stop you right in your tracks when he opens his mouth.
29. Mavi – Let the Sun Talk
Mavi caught a lot of people’s ears thanks to his collaborative relationship with Earl Sweatshirt (Earl’s on his new album and he’s also on Earl’s), and if you’re looking for more of the hazy abstract rap style that Earl — and MIKE, who also worked on Mavi’s album — has been helping to popularize, you can’t go wrong with Let the Sun Talk.
28. Skepta – Ignorance Is Bliss
Boy Better Know
In what has been an amazing year for grime, veteran Skepta — who spearheaded the genre’s current renaissance with his 2014 single “That’s Not Me” — followed 2016’s already-classic Konnichiwa with an album that somehow feels both darker and more colorful. It’s largely produced by Skepta himself, and his beats are as consistently inventive as his rhymes. He could’ve easily coasted on previous fame, but he continues to push forward.
27. Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats – Anger Management
Rico Nasty follows one of last year’s best rap albums (Nasty) with Anger Management, a collaboration with frequent producer Kenny Beats, and she doubles down on the rage-inducing mosh-raps that made Nasty so appealing. She’s getting more popular, but she’s not getting more pop-friendly. This album is rawer and less accessible than its predecessor, and bringing Baauer in for two songs only makes things louder and more in your face. Rico might technically be a rapper, but if you need proof that punk is alive and well, look no further than Anger Management.
26. 2 Chainz – Rap or Go to the League
2 Chainz is all grown up. At 42 years old and over a decade into his professional career, Tity Boi is an elder statesmen and that’s reflected in the mature tone of his fifth proper studio album. But the M word doesn’t have to mean boring, and on Rap or Go to the League, 2 Chainz is anything but. As the title implies, the album tackles the decades of systemic racism that makes it more difficult for young people of color to climb the professional ladder in America, and the music often takes on a more soulful tone too. But 2 Chainz still finds time for something purely fun like the subwoofer-rattling Kendrick Lamar collab “Momma I Hit A Lick.” 2 Chainz has long been a force within rap, but he may just now be reaching his full potential.
25. Burna Boy – African Giant
Afro-pop has been having a real moment in North America and Europe lately, and the self-proclaimed African Giant just may have emerged as the genre’s current leader. The album has a diverse cast of guests including YG, Future, Jeremih, Jorja Smith, Damian Marley, and Angelique Kidjo, and this multi-cultural, multi-genre album should appeal to fans of all of those artists. It has enough in common with current US/UK rap and R&B trends that it fits right into those worlds, but it also defies them. It doesn’t really matter what genre Burna Boy is or isn’t though. The power of his voice and the songs on African Giant will outlast all of these kinds of conversations.
24. J Balvin and Bad Bunny – Oasis
Urbano’s Watch The Throne. Latin trap star Bad Bunny and reggaeton star J Balvin — who previously collaborated on Cardi B’s “I Like It” — were already at the top of their respective genres before teaming up on Oasis, and this album pushed their fame over the edge. They make it look so easy as they cruise through these eight songs, just about all of which felt like definitive documents of 2019 music in any genre.
23. YBN Cordae – The Lost Boy
YBN Nahmir was the first star of the internet-formed YBN rap collective, but YBN Cordae quickly emerged as the group’s best rapper and the one who seems most primed for longevity. All that potential boiled over onto his debut album The Lost Boy, which features huge names like Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and Ty Dolla $ign and established Cordae as a guy who could hold his own next to all of them. Like Chance and Paak, Cordae can rap in the classic ’90s way while also weaving hooks right into his rhymes and sounding entirely in the now. If anyone can bridge the gap between Gen Z and Gen X, it might be him.
22. Beyonce – The Lion King: The Gift
One trend we’ve seen taking off lately is major artists using major movie soundtracks to make genuinely creative albums. We saw it with Kendrick Lamar and Black Panther last year, and we saw it again this year with Beyonce and The Lion King. Bey voiced Nala in the film, and she also was the force behind The Lion King: The Gift, which — like Black Panther did for Kendrick — falls somewhere between a Beyonce album and a various artists compilation. The album blends US pop/hip hop with modern Afro-pop, and it gives a handful of modern African musicians a huge US platform in the process (including Burna Boy, Mr. Eazi, WizKid, Tekno, Yemi Alade, Salatiel, Tiwa Savage, Shatta Wale, and Moonchild Sanelly, who join US guests Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, Pharrell, Tierra Whack, 070 Shake, and Jessie Reyez). The album does more than put a spotlight on a large variety of musicians and musical styles, though. It also features some of the year’s best songs. “MOOD 4 EVA” ft. Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, and Oumou Sangaré is one of 2019’s most purely enjoyable all-star rap collabs, and “MY POWER” is basically the best Tierra Whack song of 2019, and it’s got some tough competition. Next to those standouts, Bey throws in a few of her own songs — like “Bigger,” “Find Your Way Back” and “Otherwise” — that sound cut from the same cloth as Lemonade and Everything Is Love and sound effortlessly great. If The Gift makes one thing clear, it’s that Beyonce’s late-career reign is far from over.
21. Griselda – WWCD
The ’90s New York City-worshipping, Buffalo-based Griselda Records crew — Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher — inked a deal with Eminem’s Shady Records two years ago, and though they stayed highly prolific in that time, they didn’t release their Shady Records debut until late 2019. More importantly than it being a major label debut, though, is the fact that WWCD is Griselda’s first crew album. They’re always showing up on each other’s songs, but they really succeed in this group album environment, where each member gets to shine and no one needs to maintain the spotlight for too long. Benny the Butcher has been emerging as a fan-favorite member and he provides a lot of the album’s most memorable punchlines, but no matter who your favorite is, the pay-off of hearing each rapper gear up for their turn to steal the show is always worth it.
20. Pivot Gang – You Can’t Sit With Us
Last year, Saba released the powerful Care For Me which was informed by grief and quickly emerged as one of 2018’s best rap albums. It’s an excellent record, but after making such serious music, it sounds like Saba is letting out a huge sigh of relief on this much more fun album that he made with his group Pivot Gang (which also features his brother Joseph Chilliams, plus MFn Melo, SqueakPIVOT, Dam Dam, Frsh Waters, daedaePIVOT, and Daoud). It’s an album full of warm, welcoming production, clever wordplay, funny punchlines, and sticky hooks for days.
19. Stormzy – Heavy Is The Head
The self-proclaimed king of grime earns his title on his anticipated sophomore album Heavy Is The Head, which only came out a week ago but already feels at least as great as his widely acclaimed 2017 debut Gang Signs & Prayer. He earns every boast and diss that he delivers on the hard-edged songs, and the quiet melodic songs are as gorgeous as any of the year’s best R&B and soul records.
18. Dave – Psychodrama
While Stormzy sounds like he’s having a blast on his 2019 victory lap, UK rap newer-comer Dave (who shares frequent producer Fraser T. Smith with Stormzy) marches to a much different drum on his cold, dark, and stunning debut album Psychodrama. It’s a quasi-concept album that’s mapped out like a therapy session and inspired by Dave’s older brother, who is currently serving a life sentence. The album offers incisive commentary on racism and mental health, culminating with album centerpiece “Black,” a celebration of black excellence and a takedown of racial injustice so powerful that you hang on Dave’s every word no matter how many times you hear it.
17. Billy Woods + Kenny Segal – Hiding Places
NYC rapper Billy Woods released not one but two albums in 2019, October’s Terror Management and March’s Hiding Places, a collaboration with producer Kenny Segal. Hiding Places isn’t just the best of the two, but perhaps the most memorable album of Woods’ already-great career so far. His style is aggressive and booming and not always the most welcoming, but on Hiding Places, his endlessly-clever punchlines just seem to get stuck in your head even more than usual. And Kenny Segal’s production, which strikes a balance between classic hip hop and futuristic weirdness, provides Woods with an ever-exciting backdrop.
16. Koffee – Rapture EP
There’s a real reggae/dancehall resurgence happening within — or at least adjacent to — hip hop right now, with artists like Chronixx and Shenseea continuing to rule the same airwaves as rappers and R&B singers, and perhaps the most promising new voice in reggae/dancehall of 2019 was Koffee, whose debut EP Rapture is just five songs but still one of the year’s most vital releases. Reggae is a genre that can easily feel retro, but Koffee genuinely makes it feel new, and makes it fit in with the trap-pop songs on the radio. She’s got a great voice, great hooks, and sometimes — as on “Raggamuffin” — she proves she could probably go bar for bar with your favorite rapper if she wanted to.
15. Benny the Butcher – The Plugs I Met
Griselda/Black Soprano Family
There is no lack of modern-day rappers who aim to recreate the grimy sounds of ’90s New York City rap, but I don’t think there’s anyone doing it on a level that actually rivals the greats of the ‘90s like Benny the Butcher is. His latest project has guest spots from Black Thought, Jadakiss, and Pusha T, all of whom are in fine form, yet it’s still Benny who has all the most clever punchlines and all the hardest bars. Benny’s formula never really changes — vicious, dead-eyed raps delivered over eerie, lurching beats (provided on Plugs by Alchemist, in-house Griselda producer Daringer, and DJ Shay) — but his quality level is remarkably consistent and Plugs may be the most convincing case for Benny’s vitality yet.
14. Bad Bunny – X 100PRE
One of Latin trap’s biggest and best singles artists proved with X 100PRE that he could also make the genre’s first instant-classic crossover album too. The album came out just days before 2018 ended, and it became perhaps the most inescapable rap album of 2019. I feel like almost anywhere I went this year, I heard Bad Bunny’s immediately distinct voice resonating out of a car window or a bar. I can’t think of another artist who dominated hip hop on that level this year, and the immense popularity is deserved. Bad Bunny is innovative, no one sounds like him, and no matter how many times you hear these songs — even the extremely overplayed Drake-featuring “MIA” — you never tire of them.
13. JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes Are Cornballs
The loud, abrasive, industrial-tinged 2018 album Veteran was a lot of people’s introduction to avant-rapper/producer JPEGMAFIA, so it may have thrown some fans for a loop when he followed it just a year and nine months later with All My Heroes Are Cornballs, a psychedelic, surrealist rap album that’s lighter in tone and even more experimental than its predecessor. It’s a different JPEGMAFIA than the one who had a breakthrough last year, but he calls Cornballs “the most me thing I could [make].” If this is the artist JPEGMAFIA always aspired to be, I’m glad he finally got there, because Cornballs is one of the year’s best and most futuristic rap records. It’s tripped out in a way that’s similar to recent material by Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown (whose new album features significant contributions from JPEG), but it also feels like it’s in a league of its own, not quite like any other artist past or present.
12. Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin?
Danny Brown has never really made the same album twice, but even knowing to expect the unexpected, his fifth LP uknowhatimsayin? felt like a more jarring left turn than he usually takes. The progression he made throughout his first four albums could probably be described as “linear” or “logical,” but after getting louder and more ambitious each time, Danny chilled out for uknowhatimsayin?. It’s a more psychedelic album than he’s ever made, aided in part by production from psych-friendly artists Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Standing on the Corner, and JPEGMAFIA, as well as his shapeshifting go-to producer Paul White, and I didn’t expect such a daze-inducing album from Danny Brown, who’s usually such an in-your-face rapper. Turns out, Danny’s just as great at a vibe/mood-setting album like this, and the more you listen to it, the more the hooks sneak up on you and catch your ear as much as the louder music he’s released in the past.
11. Denzel Curry – ZUU
Denzel Curry’s excellent, genre-defying, three-part 2018 album TA13OO remains a modern classic and perhaps the single-best full-length album with ties to Soundcloud rap, and this year’s ZUU feels like a victory lap. TA13OO had sort of a slow rise, and by the time it caught on, he was already ready to drop this breezier, harder, more immediate followup. It’s not as ambitious as TA13OO, but in its own way, it’s just as satisfying, and it’s obvious that Denzel is only getting better as a rapper. The first half of the album finds Denzel at his most accessible, and by the end, he shows off the kind of punk-inspired fury he harnessed this year with his killer Bad Brains and Rage Against the Machine covers.
10. Solange – When I Get Home
Solange’s A Seat At The Table is one of those canon-altering albums that used the already-adventurous R&B landscape of the early/mid 2010s as a launchpad and pushed the genre forward in even more exciting directions, while also tastefully hearkening back to the lively psychedelic soul of the 1970s and providing incisive social/political commentary that resonated even more strongly after Trump was elected a month later. Where do you go from an album like that? For Solange, you go weirder, more experimental, more abstract. Both the music and the lyricism are vague, trippy, and more about mood and imagery this time around. It’s a less approachable album than its predecessor, but once it sucks you into its world, it stuns in an entirely different way. Once again, Solange — along with likeminded peers like Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, both of whom contributed to this album — has shifted the landscape of R&B, hip hop, and music in general. And judging by her past triumphs, I suspect we still haven’t seen the full impact of When I Get Home.
9. Earl Sweatshirt – Feet of Clay
It took Earl Sweatshirt over three and a half years to follow 2015’s great I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside with the more psychedelic, more experimental Some Rap Songs, but less than a year to follow that one with Feet of Clay, which confirmed the more far-out sound of Some Rap Songs was no fluke. On Feet of Clay, Earl continues to push himself forward as an innovative, outré rapper and producer. His rhymes feel a little more grounded on this one than they were on Some Rap Songs, but it’s still a dizzying, out-there project that pays little attention to traditional rap trends and song structures. And as ever, Earl knows how to write music that’s as brainy and thought-provoking as it is fun to listen to.
8. slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
With the grime renaissance in full swing, it feels like there are more great new grime records to check out than ever, and if you’re not yet fully immersed in the genre, all the new music can feel a little overwhelming. But one new artist was able to cut through all the noise and release a masterful debut album that doesn’t really sound like anything else happening right now, and that artist is slowthai. He’s as punk as he is hip hop (the album includes references to the Sex Pistols and Dizzee Rascal and should appeal to fans of both), and that’s even more evident at his mosh and circle pit-filled live shows. His sneering voice is unmistakable, and he applies all that attitude to Nothing Great About Britain, a concept album inspired by slowthai’s disgust for his home country, which hits especially hard during these rough political times in the UK. And, since we’re experiencing similar things over here, maybe that’s part of why this album continues to take off in the US too.
7. Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
It feels like there’s at least one new classic coming out of the thriving Chicago hip hop scene every year lately, and this year that title belongs to Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! Miles ahead of her already-great 2016 debut Heavn, LEGACY! LEGACY! is a semi-concept album celebrating the legacy of black art, with the songs named after multiple generations of black and brown icons, including Sun Ra, Muddy Waters, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Octavia E. Butler, Betty Davis, Miles Davis, and more. It’s also already itself an iconic piece of black art, with lyricism that’s as bold as the work of the artists Jamila is paying homage to, and a seamlessly genre-defying sound that pulls from ’70s soul, modern indie pop, hip hop, dance music, and more. Nitty Scott and Saba show up to rap showstealing guest verses, but the spotlight is almost always occupied by Jamila, who has quickly turned into one of the most commanding artists around in any genre.
6. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Freddie Gibbs is kind of an unexpected success story. He signed to Interscope in ’06 but was dropped before he was ever able to release the debut album he recorded for the label. He ended up releasing a lot of the songs intended for that album on a free internet mixtape in ’09, and as the explosion of free internet mixtapes created a new rap underground, Gibbs was able to pick up some buzz in that community as a devotee of early 2000s gangsta rap. He seemed like he’d always be a niche guy, too out of step with trends to make much of a widespread impact. But then he teamed up with legendary underground producer Madlib for a few EPs and eventually the 2014 full-length Piñata, and it turned out the pair had a chemistry so strong that the album became a favorite even outside of niche, revivalist rap circles. Piñata remains a cult classic, but when MadGibbs came together again five years later for a followup, they were even stronger. This time around, they were more familiar with each other’s style and process, they knew what worked and what didn’t, and it enabled them to knock it out of the park. Bandana has some of the very best songs of Gibbs’ lengthy career, and it solidified MadGibbs not just as a successful experiment but as one of the most crucial rapper/producer duos of the decade.
5. Rapsody – Eve
On a pure skill level, Rapsody has been one of the best in the game for a while. But even as various factors prevent her from achieving the widespread recognition she deserves (“dressed too tomboy, rap too lyrical”), she keeps pushing herself to get better and better. Just about every project she’s released has been even more breathtaking than the last, which makes Eve her clear winner for the decade. Her delivery and lyrical content are as showstopping as they were on previous albums (like 2017’s Laila’s Wisdom, which appears slightly lower down on this list), but Ever has a clearer concept than any other Rapsody album. Each song is named after a different iconic, powerful woman, and the theme of black, female excellence runs throughout the consistently strong album. Even when Rapsody isn’t discussing powerful women directly, she’s proving herself as one of modern hip hop’s most powerful women as she cruises through her carefully penned lines and leaves the listener hanging on every word.
4. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever
Megan Thee Stallion’s 2018 sleeper hit “Big Ole Freak” got her foot in the door, but her 2019 album Fever blew the house down. It’s only been about a year, but the time when Megan had just one signature song already feels like ancient history. She murdered just about every feature she did in 2019, and she released a whole slew of future classics on her own album, Fever. The album’s got a handful of beats and one guest verse by Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J, and two Three 6 samples, and it’s sort of a passing-of-the-torch moment for Megan, who’s obviously influenced by Three 6 Mafia and other ’90s/early ’00s rap but who couldn’t be more of the moment. She’s got the charisma, the bars, the hooks, and Fever so clearly defined the 2019 rap landscape. The only other 2019 rap newcomer on Megan’s level is the very likeminded DaBaby, and he has the only other guest verse on Fever. He’s on “Cash Shit,” which, in some ways, feels like THE rap song of 2019. It’s Megan and DaBaby in one place, doing what they do best, and it captures the essence of where rap is right now, just as the new decade approaches.
3. DaBaby – Baby On Baby / Kirk
“Straight off the rip, you know I don’t wait for the drop,” DaBaby raps on “Off The Rip” off his second album of 2019, KIRK, and right there, DaBaby pretty much defined the whole style he perfected just a few months earlier on his breakthrough album Baby On Baby. He takes a beat, usually something with bare but forceful drums, a booming, rubbery bassline, and not much else, and he starts rapping before the song even fully kicks in. (On paper, he’s kinda like a punk band.) The Charlotte, NC rapper fits in with current South giants Migos (Offset is on Baby On Baby, and all of Migos are on KIRK), but he’s got a fast-rapping style that’s more Trap Muzik than trap music, recalling brash, early 2000s rappers like T.I. and Ludacris in a way that works within current mainstream rap. Baby On Baby and KIRK haven’t even been out for a year, and they both already feel like a greatest hits. Baby On Baby has his initial breakthrough song “Walker Texas Ranger,” the song that made him a star “Suge,” and a slew of other tracks (“Taking It Out,” “Goin Baby,” “Baby Sitter”) that hit just as heavily. KIRK continues his reign of could-be hits and actual hits, and also introduces a more sentimental side that suits Baby surprisingly well (parts of KIRK are about DaBaby’s father passing away just as he started getting famous). Both albums feel too hastily put together to suggest DaBaby was trying to write a Classic Album, but sometimes this much pure fun and sheer talent hitting you all at once is how classics are made.
2. Little Simz – grey AREA
Over the course of her masterful third album GREY area, UK rapper Little Simz shows off a vast musical spectrum and a lyrical depth that leaves even many of the most popular rappers in the dust. Beginning with “Offence” and “Boss,” the album starts out as raw and urgent as Civil Rights era psychedelic soul and as cutthroat as ’90s New York rap. From there, Simz explores glossy neo-soul (“Selfish”), Eastern-tinged hip hop (“101 FM”), introspective rap balladry (“Sherbet Sunset”), and lush jazz rap (the Michael Kiwanuka-featuring “Flowers”), all without losing her focus or mincing her words. She still hasn’t caught on in the US as much as she has in her home country, but when I saw her playing a packed Music Hall of Williamsburg show in Brooklyn earlier this year, you could tell that everyone in the room knew they were witnessing something truly next level. If there’s any justice in the next decade, Simz will skyrocket to the top off the strength of her pure talent alone.
1. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
When Tyler, the Creator started this decade off as a member of the rowdy skate-rap crew Odd Future and the brains behind the dark, shock-rap mixtape Bastard, who would’ve thought he’d end it with the gorgeous, lovelorn, experimental soul song cycle IGOR? It’s hard to say what Tyler’s best album is, especially when Bastard and Goblin are definitely his most influential, and maybe it’s recency bias to pick IGOR, but IGOR deserves the title just because he took such a gigantic leap and stuck the landing. It’s full of huge guests like Solange, Kanye West, and Santigold, but no one — not even Tyler — really ever takes the spotlight. Everyone’s voices swirl into one big melting pot of sounds along with Tyler’s inventive production, and the whole thing almost acts more as a mood piece than a rap album. That said, further listens reveal storylines and lyrical depth and traces of the unique personality that Tyler won the world over with a decade ago. It sounds absolutely nothing like his breakthrough works, yet it’s unmistakably the work of no other artist, and that’s no small feat.
Need more year-end lists? See BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2019.