The 40 best hip hop and R&B tracks of 2018

2018 has been a very difficult year for ‘best of’ lists where hip hop and R&B is concerned. The often intertwined genres haven’t seen this much quality output for years, constant head-turning and critically acclaimed albums from artists both old and new have made the past 12 months the best in the scene since 2012. We’ve made some very hard decisions to try and sculpt a top 40 for hip hop and R&B this year, but note that this is nowhere near a definitive round-up of the only songs you need to hear. See below for our full list and check out the Spotify playlist towards the bottom.

40. Rico Nasty “Countin’ Up”

Many rappers wouldn’t even know how to – or perhaps even dare – tackle Noreaga’s legendary “Superthug”, but Rico Nasty’s brazen Nasty kind of demanded this throwback moment. Her raps are ferocious and heavy, completely dominating this flip and proving she’s ready to stomp her way to mainstream success. It’s as simple as that, and you can bet Pharrell, Chad and Nore would have approved as their classic was shredded up and reimagined for Rico to completely own.

39. Tinashe “Oh La La”

Though Joyride may not have exceeded Tinashe’s classic (yeah, classic) debut Aquarius it’s still a solid album that once again showcased just how wide-reaching and imaginative the young artist is when it comes to teetering the lines of pop and R&B. The title track, almost snatched by Rihanna for ANTI, is a loud and aggressive left-turn, and “Stuck With Me” with Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano is the album’s most obvious hit, but it’s the simple “Oh La La” that proves the best choice. Slinky and seductive, it’s the closest Tinashe has come to the perfect bubblegum pop song, the beat taking the squeaky springs of Trillville’s “Some Cut”, and the “169 Aaaah” sample from Nelly’s (absolutely fucking terrible) “dilemma” for the smaller details while ‘Nashe turns in a very self-assured performance, especially for someone who has to put up with so many album delays to get to this point.

38. Triple One “Redline Reaper”

“Showoff” is the one getting all the attention, but it’s the dark trap-influenced bounce coming from earlier-in-the-year “Redline Reaper” that we’re gravitating towards. With some slick visuals shot in a junkyard, the track was the biggest noise-maker from The Naughty Corner EP with its eerie atmosphere falling nicely in-line with something you’d expect to hear from Brooklyn’s Flatbush Zombies. Although there’s a lot more soul here, thanks to a tempered hook from Lil Dijon, who glides between heated verses from Marty Large and Obi Ill Terrors while Billy Gunns’ glues it all together behind the scenes.

37. Westside Gunn Feat Anderson .Paak “Wrestlemania 20”

You wouldn’t expect a sound so soulful and tender bubbling underneath a rapper coming from Buffalo, New York. Nor would you expect this from listening to the rest of Westside Gunn’s excellent Supreme Blientele, but with 9th Wonder on the beat and raspy-voiced Anderson .Paak on the hook, Gunn has managed to build something absolutely stunning from an unwavering love of wrestling sitting alongside graphic stories of drugs and violence. He proves his diversity with this one, kicking rather intense lyrics with his high-pitched voice – sounding like if Capone was a member of Wu-Tang instead of CNN – juxtaposed nicely with 9th’s relaxed soundscape.

36. Cardi B “Bickenhead”

There are plenty of moments through Cardi B’s acclaimed debut album, Invasion of Privacy, that could have made this list. But for hip hop fans, one of the best cuts was an exciting flip of Project Pat’s classic “Chickenhead”, reviving the Three 6 produced track with a viscous and witty performance that falls in-line with Cardi’s style. Many modern hip hop tracks have turned to vintage Memphis sounds this year, but none came quite as close to giving it a modern twist as this one.

** Playing Origin Fields**

35. Kwame “CLOUDS.”

Kwame has rightfully emerged as one of Australia’s most promising new emcees, swiftly snatching a tremendous amount of acclaim shortly after watching “WOW” spread like wildfire, opening Splendour in the Grass with a head-turning performance, and bravely taking on, and nailing, a Like a Version of Kendrick’s “Alright”. The bouncy everyday-ness whistle of “CLOUDS” gets our pick to best represent the artist’s dynamite flow.

34. Meek Mill “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies”

From “Stay Woke” and “Millidelphia” to “What’s Free?” and Drake-collab “Going Bad”, Meek Mill found a way to put out some of his best work in between dealing with the cracks of the U.S court system. He’s always been a distinctive, energetic rapper, but something about his injustice has, understandably, given him some serious bones to pick and he spends much of new album Championships ripping the flesh off and truly digging into both his frustration and new-found perspective on just how fucked up it the “system”. It’s also made him sharper when it comes to writing introspective and reflective songs, which is why his nostalgia-heavy “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” edges out all others here, with it’s vintage-minded production and Meek’s frenetic rhythm cutting the elastic beat into pieces.

33. Manu Crooks Feat. B Wise & Lil’ Spacely “Best Years”

On local soil there are few emcees that have had such a soaring 2018 as Manu Crooks. Though he only has one EP under his belt, the Sydney artist has been given the hefty responsibility of serving as connective tissue between Australia’s hip hop scene and the rest of the world, pulling major international attention to the “new wave” of Aussie rap. His singles have been added to some of the biggest streaming playlists in the world, and while “Fuego” has been his commercial stand-out thus far, we’re finding it hard to resist “Best Years”, bringing along B Wise and Lil’ Spacely for the ride as all three demolish the carnival-like production shaped by DOPAM!NE & Klapback.

32. Denzel Curry “SUMO|ZUMO”

Denzel Curry’s violent, earth-quaking “SUMO” may get by on it’s pure energy and “holy shit, this is going to be so lit live”-ness, but it’s also the best example of Curry as a beastly emcee, attacking the stretchy bass and Lil’ Jon-like libs like crunk never left. And it hasn’t, it’s just evolved, and the Lil’ Scrappys and Trillvilles of the world have levelled up to this unstoppable 23 year old rapper, passing the crunk juice-filled pimp cup from Atlanta to Florida.

**Playing Sydney and Melbourne in 2019**

31. Dallas Woods Feat Jerome Farah “Hoodlum”

Noongar emcee Dallas Woods may not have many songs under his belt yet, but you wouldn’t be able to tell after listening to “Hoodlum”. Advanced and expressive, the witty rapper spits with depth and insight as he untangles the very tangled race relations in Australia and its complicated history. Vocalist Jerome Farah comes in for the hook, breaking up Woods’ brutal and honest verses that add nicely to the increasing presence of First Nations rappers bringing their perspective to Australia’s hip hop scene and evolving it for the better.

30. Rejjie Snow Feat Caroline Smith “23”

Listening to Dublin artist Rejjie Snow and his debut Dear Annie can be a jarring experience, making it seem as if you’re trying to grasp multiple projects at once; the tones and shapes are so vastly different, but such is the appeal of such a wide-reaching emcee and producer. The album could have easily had Rejjie falling flat on his face, and according to some reviews it did, but the more patient listener will find a lot to appreciate here. It’s hard to pick just one song from this project, but the laid-back tennis match of “23” seems as good a choice as any, Rejjie teaming with Caroline Smith for an endearing, delicate song of love and tension.

29. Drake “Nice For What”

It was only a matter of time before Drake moved on from sucking the life out of UK grime and turned his attention towards New Orleans bounce. The historic sound isn’t often found being mined on the charts anymore, but between T.I and Lil’ Wayne’s 2012 single “Ball” and “Nice For What”, we’re being shown that the once dominant party music has a lot to offer contemporary hip hop. Trust Drake to come through and turn this “Ex-Factor” sampling beast into a certified dancefloor anthem, shaking off the groggy rap jams and turning in his most energetic performance to date.

28. Midas.Gold “Passions”

Midas.Gold has been flexing his potential more so than ever in 2018, sliding through expressive R&B inflected raps to this confident power move, digging into the pockets of UK 2-step with a constantly morphing triple flow, ascending into a devilish dub breakdown and spraying all kinds of rounds at top-down hypocrisy. It’s already steady turning heads on a global scale, surely bringing some much deserved attention to this Brisbane rapper who is standing defiantly at the forefront of Aussie hip hop’s “new wave”.

27. Derez De’Shon “Hardaway”

As one of the south’s biggest underground hits in years, “Hardaway” is a chiseled and effective song of pain. ATL rapper Derez De’Shon has a booming, expressive voice and uses that to the max, filling the spacey, somber beat with sincerity as he plays with the track’s title and spits a heartfelt and vivid story of the struggle so often overshadowed by the above-ground raps of today.

26. Jay Rock Feat Kendrick Lamar, Future & James Blake “King’s Dead”

Jay Rock’s Redemption was an excellent show of force from the TDE rapper, sliding past ScHoolboy Q and Lamar himself to be the label’s MVP of 2018. Though “WIN” is the album’s major banger, it’s the slick power move of “King’s Dead” that pushes through as the project’s finest moment, despite Future’s failed experiment of a verse. Lamar also spazzes on the track’s breathless second half, and no one can touch K Dot when he’s in his bag.

25. Kali Uchis Feat Steve Lacy “Just A Stranger”

Kali Uchis, on the cusp of a visit to Australia with FOMO Festival, takes on this year’s funkiest instrumental, handled by The Internet’s very busy Steve Lacy, and puts forth a commanding performance, showing off her witty songwriting as she struts all over anyone who dares do anything more than just watch from the bleachers as she climbs her way to superstardom.

**Playing FOMO Festival and sideshows**

24. ChillinIt “Wish You Well Pt.2 (It’s A Vibe)”

Dominating the underground Aussie rap scene all year, ChillinIt has fast become one of the most exciting emcees in the country, especially with a debut album as rousing as Women, Weed and Wordplay under his belt. The last word in his album title is where he exceeds, and goes far beyond many of his peers with clever, biting and witty verses that seem to flow from his pen at an unstoppable rate. The best balance is found with “Wish You Well Pt.2 (It’s A Vibe)”, a radio-friendly, off-the-wall bounce that, though loud and heavy, can’t overshadow the hunger in ChillinIt’s voice as he bowls over the competition with an effortless flow.

23. Chris Dave & The Drumheadz Feat Anderson .Paak “Black Hole”

Ever-talented veteran musician Chris Dave and his new project have creeped under the radar with one of 2018’s best releases, their self-titled project bringing out the best from every one of its guests, including Anna Wise, Bilal, Tweet (yes, the “Oops (Oh My)” Tweet), and the standout Anderson .Paak. With .Paak putting out his own commanding work with Oxnard, we got plenty of the raspy soul-funk singer this year, but “Black Hole” is definitely amongst the best. The band handle this propulsive and multifaceted instrumental with a slick sense of timing, perfectly fitting .Paak’s cadence and pulling him into the many, many details which should see this on any discerning music fan’s heavy-rotation list.

22. Arin Ray Feat SiR “Fuck Ya’ll”

The choice cut from Arin Ray’s respectable Platinum Fire borrows heavily from one of Busta Rhymes’ most pivotal singles and builds it into a moody chip-on-the-shoulder R&B anthem, bringing in SiR so both singers can express their frustrations in a stronger, more robust way than most rappers did this year.

21. Nas Feat The-Dream “Adam & Eve”

Nasir is an excellent album, but that doesn’t mean Nas himself is as consistent across the seven tracks as he could have been. At some points, the legendary Queens emcee sounds lethargic, lost between Kanye’s varied production and aching for something a bit more in-sync with his own style.

If anything, Nasir emphasised the difference that’s always existed between Nas and former rival JAY-Z. Hov’s style is adaptive; an elastic and shapeshifting profile that can eat through just about any type of beat, no matter how experimental. Nas, on the other hand, has always just had the one flow: the straight no-bullshit classic rapper flow, with few variations. And as hard-hitting and endearing as that is, it limits the type of beat that can bring out Nas’ best moments.

That type of beat is “Adam & Eve”, a brilliant neo-mafioso banger that springs the rapper to life, begging him to remind us just why he is one of the greatest to do it. We just could have easily listed the beautiful “Everything” or the inventive “Cops Shot The Kid” (the beat of which reminds us of this Salaam Remi gem), but for a classic dose of Nasty Nas, this is the one you’d want.

**Touring Australia in 2019**

20. Jorja Smith “The One”

Elegant and postured, Jorja Smith’s spellbinding voice twists and twirls all over this one, serving as a nice little reminder that this undeniable talent is one of the best vocalists in the industry right now. Showing both strength and vulnerability, she sings of fear and inescapable love with the most passionate performance R&B has seen this year.

**Playing Laneway Festival**

19. Phonte “So Help Me God”

Always be on the lookout for legendary lyricists when they drop a project amongst all the noise that overcrowds hip-hop with generic garbage nowadays. They’ll restore your faith in the direction the culture and music has taken since it was announced that hip hop had overtaken rock as the dominant genre in contemporary music. Case in point: Phonte takes his lyricism very seriously, and it pays off in spades on AOTY contender No News Is Good News. We’re going with the gruff and moody “So Help Me God” as the album’s best representation, taking aim at the lack of originality that plagues rap over the statement drums laid so beautifully by producer Marco Polo.

18. DaniLeigh “Do It To Me”

Is there any song that has sampled The Isley Brothers so liberally and not been a certified hit? Across generations, top-tier artists have looked to the legendary group for inspiration, from Usher’s “One Day You’ll Be Mine” to Kendrick Lamar’s “i”, that throughline is well maintained with “Do It To Me”. The song has DaniLeigh, one of the year’s breakout R&B stars, navigating a gorgeous flip of classic “Footsteps in the Dark” (also sampled by that aforementioned Usher cut) with pure 100% silk.

17. J.I.D Feat J Cole “Off Deez”

Many Dreamville artists have confidently stepped from J Cole’s sizable shadow and proved the label’s incredible roster of talent. J.I.D is without a doubt the best of that crew, solidified by the relentless Dicaprio2 and it’s two stand-out singles, “151 Rum” and “Off Deez”. We’re going with the latter here, a devastating whirlwind pace which has both J.I.D and Cole rapping at breakneck speed and flipping cadence multiple times without pause. It’s stunning, even if the beat isn’t.

**Playing Hidden Festival**

16. Benny the Butcher “Broken Bottles”

A drug dealers wisdom is passed across generations on “Broken Bottles”, capturing the gritty sound of rough-and-tough Buffalo and spraying it all over a dark, menacing beat; the kind you’d expect to hear the late great Prodigy popping up over. With an atmosphere that should easily win over any Mobb Deep fan, and a penchant for vivid, biting lyricism, look for Benny to get up to speed with Westside Gunn and Conway as this crew put New York on their back and bring it back to the ground.

15. Royce Da 5″9 Feat Eminem & King Green “Caterpillar”

Between Book of Ryan and PRhyme 2, it’s hard to pick just one track to represent just how much Royce Da 5″9 has dominated with his lyricism in 2018. I’ll just let this one speak for itself.

14. Kids See Ghosts “4th Dimension”

As an album, Kids See Ghosts was the best thing to come from Kanye’s ambitious Wyoming project, feeling like something the rapper-producer has been building up to for years with frequent collaborator Kid Cudi by his side. Together, the two feed off each other’s styles, particularly Kanye’s far-reaching production which pulls on many different strings and builds numerous clashing moods for this project.

“4th Dimension”, prefaced by the great Louis “King Louie” Prima, is Kanye the producer at his best, elongating the sample and morphing it into a dark, futuristic anthem. It’s simple, accessible and incredibly effective, not too left-field and divisive like some of the album’s other tracks (“Feel The Love”, “Freeee”), but not without the highly detailed and imaginative arrangement that Kanye is known for, sitting along with Cudi’s vibrating monotone that stretches all over this one perfectly.

13. Trapo “Trap House Funk”

One of the standout “bubblin’ under the radar” gems you may have missed this year. “Trap House Funk” is, amongst many other tracks on Trapo’s excellent Oil Change, both refreshingly relaxed and tough. He has a penchant for eating through these jazzy 90’s throwback productions and coming across both intelligent and ferocious, spinning lyrically dense tales that set him apart from other up-and-coming emcees. Let’s hope we hear more from the Wisconsin rapper in 2019.

12. Maxwell “Shame”

Ever the elegant purveyor of mature and wise R&B, the legendary Maxwell has once again put out one of R&B’s most stunning entries for 2018, a celebration of blackness and beauty with a characteristically suave performance. As smooth as ever, he sounds right at home on this beautiful instrumental, and ever so confident as he proves that not all voices fade over time.

11. Ella Mai “Boo’d Up”

More than just another infectious hit to burn up the charts, “Boo’d Up” was one of the more playful and clever R&B songs to emerge in 2018. It certainly set Ella Mai up for a very bright career ahead, and thankfully heralded an album that was quality from front-to-back. From the irresistible bridge to the slinky chorus, it could have easily sunk into the soulless waters of pop, but Mai’s sincerity and clever songwriting will ensure that no amount of overkill could dull this song’s brilliance and charming simplicity.

10. Noname “Don’t Forget About Me”

Out of all the special moments on Noname’s exceptional Room 25 the neo-soul, Jill Scott-like “Don’t Forget About Me” is the Chicago rapper at her most ascendant. Producer Phoelix pulled out the ultra high thread count linens to blanket this beat with a magic touch, giving Noname something to purge all those dark and melancholic thoughts and watch them float away into the clouds, to which this song will most definitely take you.

9. Lupe Fiasco “King Nas”

Lupe’s lyrically dense, high-concept Drogas Wave sure is a dizzying and demanding listen. It seems like the Chicago emcee has doubled down on his lyricism and unbelievable knack for storytelling to put out his most aspirational (that is saying a lot) album to date, breaking apart the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and building an entire world and narrative to make profound connections between past, present and alternate reality. It’s the type of album that could be studied for days on end, a polymathic proclamation of Lupe’s undeniable spot as one of the greatest lyricists of all time. And while there’s a lot to get through, we think Lupe is at his best when his stepping away from the concept to bring things closer to his heart, putting forth a genuine and beautiful track inspired by his two nephews (King and Nas).

8. Black Thought “9th vs Thought”

Though we’ve gotten pieces of solo Black Thought in the past, from “Thought at Work” to “Please Don’t Go”, the peerless emcee has never actually released a record without the rest of The Roots behind him. Split into two volumes, Tariq put out Streams of Thought this year to much acclaim, but its the first volume, produced entirely by 9th Wonder, which features some of the beefier material. The rapper-producer combo make a showstopping team, so the track which keeps it most simple and straight-forward is our top pick.

7. “Mac Miller “Self Care”

There are few rappers in history that have grown and changed as artists so noticeably and significantly as Mac Miller. Go back and listen to his major label debut Blue Slide Park and then jump to this year’s Swimming; this was a musician only interested in getting better, and better, morphing his sound constantly until his tragic death earlier this year. The openness and exploratory approach he took to hip hop, combined with his knack for expressive and, most recently, cathartic songwriting, is illustrated so well throughout “Swimming”. Pain and acceptance is plentiful, bearing a wound so open and deep, ironically treated with instrumentals amongst the most beautiful he has ever rapped on. And they brought out the best in him, particularly “Self Care” which has Mac darting between the drums with melodic raps, casually trying to untangle himself in both healthy and unhealthy ways.

6. Kanye West Feat PartyNextDoor, Kid Cudi & 070 Shake “Ghost Town”

Whether it’s Mike Dean’s fuzzy riffs or 070 Shake’s transcendental outro, Ye’s textured humming or Cudi’s earnest appearance, PartyNextDoor’s beautiful build-up or the eerie sample of Shirley Ann Lee, “Ghost Town” is something Kanye West has been trying to make for years. He just finally got all the parts right, presenting what is undoubtedly his most recent album’s finest selection.

5. Saba “LIFE”

An album rife with grief, Care for Me is a sincere and vulnerable offering from Chicago rapper Saba who has funnelled a world of pain into some of his finest work to date. The cohesive fusion of trap and jazz on “LIFE” is a certain high-point, providing an interesting platform for the emcee, who raps with great depth and reflection as he lets us into some of the darkest moments in his life.

4. Miguel “Pineapple Skies”

That recent argument about the current king of R&B doesn’t really seem all that difficult to solve with a listen to any of Miguel’s albums. Now four solid projects deep, the adventurous artist has left behind the lush, deeply experiment vibes that made Wildheart such an incredible feat, and decided to mix politics and pleasure to see what comes out. Turns out that combination has birthed some of the artist’s best songs yet, a list topped by the slinky “Pineapple Skies”, refusing to go the trendy “dark R&B” route and drawing on poppy licks and irresistible rhythm to offer us this excellent piece of escapism. Though technically this is a 2017 song, it was released towards the end of the year and its impact wasn’t really felt until 2018 kick off (plus, we just couldn’t not include this).

3. Pusha T “Come Back Baby”

I know we’re supposed to pick “If You Know You Know” here, but we’ve been rocking with this one due to the beautifully positioned George Jackson sample, which chops up Push’s beastly bass-fuelled lyrical binge perfectly. Kanye West as an arranger and director is his best on this track, carefully handling King Push as he spazzes over the simple drum pattern and warbling bassline. Simple recipe, exceptional ingredients: this is three Michelin star rap at its richest.

2. J. Cole “Friends”

“There’s all sorts of trauma from drama that children see
Type of shit that normally would call for therapy
But you know just how it go in our community
Keep that shit inside it don’t matter how hard it be
Fast forward, them kids is grown and they blowing trees
And popping pills due to chronic anxiety
I been saw the problem but stay silent ’cause I ain’t Jesus
This ain’t no trial if you desire go higher please
But fuck that now I’m older I love you ’cause you my friend
Without the drugs I want you be comfortable in your skin
I know you so I know you still keep a lot of shit in
You running from yourself and you buying product again
I know you say it helps and no I’m not trying to offend
But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend
Reality distorts and then you get lost in the wind
And I done seen the combo take niggas off the deep end
One thing about your demons they bound to catch up one day
I’d rather see you stand up and face them than run away
I understand this message is not the coolest to say
But if you down to try it I know of a better way
Meditate”

1. Travis Scott Feat Drake “Sicko Mode”

Travis Scott isn’t just rapping about being in the “Upper Echelon” anymore, he’s truly living amongst the biggest names in the industry, and it’s a position he most certainly is going to maintain if he keeps crafting albums like Astroworld. The project, a culmination of all the interesting concepts Travis has been throwing out since both Hov and ‘Ye picked him up to provide some much-needed texture for their own individual projects back in 2013, is a stunning show of force and creativity from the 26 year old artist.

And of course “Sicko Mode” is it’s centrepiece; one of the most successful hip hop tracks of 2018 and certainly the most experimental cut you’d find at the top of the charts. Not only has it got white middle-class Instagram influencers singing along to Big Hawk (a true sign of the times), but it’s easily one of – if not the – most ambitious rap songs since Kanye West welcomed us to his Dark Twisted Fantasy eight years ago. And it’s an experiment which pays off, bringing Drake along for the trippy rollercoaster ride as a rowdy team of producers aggressively clash their styles together and present a powerful sonic rush that, through three different permutations, spins both Scott and Drake into beast mode.

Honourable Mentions:

Kendrick Lamar Feat SZA “All The Stars”
REASON “Better Dayz”
The Internet “Come Over”
BROCKHAMPTON “1999 Wildfire”
Buddy Feat A$AP Ferg “Black”
Dave East & Styles P “It’s Lit”
Anderson .Paak Feat Q-Tip “Cheers”
Summer Walker “Girls Need Love”
Jean Grae & Quelle Chris “My Contribution to this Scam”
Jericho Jackson “Self Made”
GoldLink Feat Miguel “Got Friends”
RAIZA BIZA Feat Remi & Sampa the Great “Jiggy”
Jazz Cartier “Talk 2”
Nipsey Hussle Feat YG “Last Time That I Checc’d”
T.I Feat Meek Mill “Jefe”
Ravyn Lenae “Sticky”
Dave Feat Fredo “Funky Friday”
6LACK Feat J Cole “Pretty Little Fears”
Sylan LaCue “Best Me”
Octavian Feat Suspect “Break That”
Ursa the Chef Feat Mick Jenkins “Rigatoni”
Kaiit “OG Luv Kush Pt 2”
Cozz Feat J Cole “Zendaya”
Junor & Z. Lewis “Nothing to Me”
Dave B Feat Sango “I Rhymed King with King”
JPEGMAFIA “Whole Foods”
A$AP Rocky Feat Juicy J “Gunz N Better”
Duckwrth “Fall Back”
Jhene Aiko Feat Rae Sremmurd “Sativa”
Savour the Rations “Thank the Lord”
Chris Crack “Comfortably Numb”

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review, an obsessive hip hop nerd, a whisky drinker, and a lover of all things travel. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter with @chrisdsingh.