Published Dec 05, 2019This year in hip-hop belonged to the new guard, who continued to expand the culture to include all sorts of fresh viewpoints and perspectives. Canadian breakouts like Haviah Mighty and Snotty Nose Rez Kids decolonized musical narratives, Megan Thee Stallion made sure everyone had a Hot Girl Summer, and UK firebrands Little Simz and Slowthai spoke about against the state of their nation. Find them and more in Exclaim!'s 10 Best Hip-Hop Records of 2019.
With an infectious iced-out smile, undeniable energy and a strategy of being bold, getting to the point and letting visuals do the work, DaBaby has not only become a breakout star of 2019 but has subsequently delivered one of the best albums of the year. Dedicated to his father and lead by the April release of 2x Grammy-nominated single "Suge (Yea Yea)," Kirk reconfigures the idea that rap has to be serious to be great. On Kirk, DaBaby shows that whether he's producing a Broadway video for "Bop" or catching the "Vibez," he is living life to the fullest and taking everyone with him.
9. Megan Thee Stallion
With Fever, Houston's Megan Thee Stallion burns her brand onto the ass of Texas hip hop, a state not known for its female rappers. Whether she raps as her pimp persona Tina Snow or party maven alter-ego Hot Girl Meg, the unapologetic freestyle queen takes no prisoners, slashing down anyone who dares stand in her way; she's a sniper whose wicked burns land with dead aim atop sweltering beats. She flaunts her sexuality and, with unshakable confidence, her untouchable talent, reversing power roles. She takes her share and leaves nothing left. Ultimately, Fever is a statement of dominance and independence.
Leslie Ken Chu
Nothing Great About Britain
Slowthai listens to a lot of Dizzee Rascal. Within the first few bars of his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, he spits "I ain't Dizzee, I'm just a boy in a corner." Despite the subversive declaration, the two have a similar trajectory. Much like Dizzee's masterpiece, Boy In Da Corner, Nothing Great About Britain is a concentrated serving of cheeky voyeurism. Bolstered by laser-sharp bars, multisyllabic flows and syncopated cadences, it's a cynical, equally edifying record that uses regional patriotism and rambunctious debauchery as a foundation to investigate issues of classism, post-Brexit tension, and economic inequality — brought to life by Slowthai's wickedly twisted sense of humour.
7. Snotty Nose Rez Kids
Haisla Nation rap duo Darren "Young D" Metz and Quinton "Yung Trybez" Nyce made the 2018 Polaris Music Prize short list with their 2017 sophomore album, The Average Savage, and repeated the feat with 2019's Trapline, begging the question what exactly they'd have to do in order to win. The lyrics on Trapline are brutally honest, vibrantly poetic, and playfully humorous, while every beat is a banger, lacing nods to the old school with cutting edge rap and slick trap, alongside perfectly curated collaborations with Kimmortal and the Sorority. Trapline is culturally essential, a significant contribution to the betterment of humankind.
6. Denzel Curry
In only 29 unremitting minutes, Denzel Curry obliterates all the ill will Flo Rida, DJ Khaled and Pitbull bestowed upon Miami hip-hop over the last decade. Of course, the 24-year-old rapper's fourth LP is a love letter to his vibrant hometown, but Curry also possesses a prodigious knowledge of his country's entire history of rap music, best demonstrated by his stridden flow that comes off contemporary but also in debt to the heroes from his birth year, like 2Pac and Naughty by Nature. On ZUU, Denzel Curry celebrates his arrival as the new monarch of the Miami scene. Hip hop hooray!
5. Little Simz
London-based rapper Little Simz's third studio record GREY Area exists within its namesake. Adamantly avoiding the black and white, Simz has packed the record with both introspection and pointed disaffection. She's painfully aware of her precarious mindset and her place in the world, two occupied spaces that exist in constant flux between darkness and light. Simz's anxieties in tandem with her strength are conveyed on GREY Area though her incredibly forthcoming and emotive lyrics, and delivered in lethally rapid bars. Her doubt for the future is palpable — but so is her ability to confront it.
4. Haviah Mighty
Brampton, Ontario sent us a hip-hop saviour in Haviah Mighty, a young artist with the chops and worldview of a mature pro. Her wordplay is witty and unpredictable (with more than a few GTA Easter eggs for close listeners) and she's clearly a mindful, conscious rapper who balances fun with socio-cultural introspection. Named after the U.S. Constitution's thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery while enabling racist carceral policies, Mighty's Polaris Music Prize-winning album fosters a lot of investigative, institutional questions. It's also laced with pop hooks, spirited singing, rapping, and sick beats that are equally old and new school.
3. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
(Keep Cool / RCA)
The words "instant classic" are used indiscriminately, but few artists have rightfully earned the title like Freddie Gibbs and Madlib did on their 2014 masterpiece, Piñata. On their follow-up, Bandana, the pair proves that their previous airtight chemistry wasn't a fluke. Madlib continues to ignite a hunger in Gibbs that is a pleasure to witness. He's at his lyrical best with Madlb's sturdy, soulful beats at his feet and throughout the album, Gibbs delivers sharp, bellicose bars that are packed with wit and delightfully NSFW. It's seamless, good old-fashioned, gangsta rap that, like its predecessor, will surely prove to be timeless.
2. Danny Brown
Few knew what a Danny Brown record executive-produced by Q-Tip would sound like and even fewer would have imagined the jagged and foreboding vibe of unknowhatimsayin¿ The beats, produced by the likes of JPEGMAFIA, Flying Lotus and Paul White, owe more to old school boom-bap than modern trap. But no one is accusing Brown of being a classist; he's far better known for an unwillingness to settle. More than anything the record makes a strong argument for artists, untethered from trends, breathing new life (and plenty of comedy) into old styles.
1. Tyler, the Creator
After four albums of pessimistic self-hatred, Tyler, the Creator found his happy place on Flower Boy, and while that record had some hit or miss moments, he's hit his stride in this matured style on IGOR. Through softer instrumentals and a sincere sense of lyricism that pulled the curtain away from the edgy bars that brought Tyler to superstardom, he's created a nuanced record that challenges both the musician and the audience.
Ditching the harsh, visceral beats of his early work almost entirely for soulful hooks and hazy pop beats, IGOR finds Tyler singing more often than spitting bars, playing into the album's theme of a hopeful outlook on the results of a love triangle. Songs like "RUNNING OUT OF TIME" and "PUPPET" display his capabilities in writing for a vast range of moods when set alongside the more hip-hop centric songs like "NEW MAGIC WAND" and "WHAT'S GOOD."
IGOR is Tyler, The Creator's most diverse and emotionally available record to date and shows the development of his skills in both writing and producing. It proves that he doesn't need to compromise his thoughts and ideas to match what others want but rather that as he continues to explore his more adventurous ideas, his sound will continue to flourish and blossom.
Check out more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2019 lists here.