Time’s arrow marches ever forward and here we are, already halfway through 2019 and in a prime position to start humming and hawing over which of the year’s releases we will herald as the very best in six months’ time. Blessedly, we are a ways away from having to pit such instant classics as Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR or Solange’s When I Get Home or slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain against each other; for now they can all coexist in blissful, unranked harmony.
Reading from A-Z, here are the records we’ve been ceaselessly spinning this year – the best albums of 2019 so far:
2 Chainz – ‘Rap or Go to the League’
For being such an omnipresent force in hip-hop over the past decade, 2 Chainz has been conspicuously lacking an album of serious worth. Until now, that is. Rap or Go to the League is a huge accomplishment for the Hair Weave Killer in Chief, proving beyond a doubt that he has the chops to last a full-length project, never outstaying his welcome and scoring one-liners aplenty.
21 Savage – ‘i am > i was’
Sliding in during the very last days of 2018 (thus making it ineligible for any official tabulation per the schedule of music journalists worldwide), 21 Savage‘s glorious sophomore studio album is just too wholly good to get slipped through the cracks. Opening track “a lot” is among the best of his catalog, a boom-bap banger whose bombast effuses the feeling of a talent who has truly arrived, while sensual pleasures continue to abound in the form of the giddily lascivious “a&t” and the quietly (literally) referential “asmr.”
Dave – ‘PSYCHODRAMA’
Staging an album as a psychiatry session is nothing new in hip-hop, but there’s never really been a rap album (or for that matter, album) that employs this conceit with as much incisive impact as Dave‘s stunning debut. A natural storyteller, the British MC tackles mental health head-on, putting it in context among the various problems plaguing society in such jaw-dropping tales as the 11-minute “Lesley” and the blistering J Hus-featuring “Disaster.”
Denzel Curry – ‘ZUU’
It doesn’t seem possible to overstate the extent to which ZUU is Denzel Curry‘s best work to date. It also doesn’t seem possible to come up with a term in the English language that can convey how unbelievably, skull-crushingly hard this record is. “RICKY” will blow out your speakers if you’re not careful, which can really be said for every other track on this propulsive, god damn brilliant album. This summer’s looking a lot like Curry season.
Flying Lotus – ‘Flamagra’
Flying Lotus has always been an auteur, a true creator of worlds, with each of his enormous full-length projects. But Flamagra finds Steven Ellison truly leveling up; whether it was creating a film himself or enlisting the aid of the iconoclastic David Lynch for a guest feature, this record is a bold new course. Balancing his more experimental impulses with some of the most outright pop material of his career, Flamagra is a consistently enthralling experience.
Injury Reserve – ‘Injury Reserve’
Putting a bright new set of faces on the future of experimental rap, Injury Reserve have made quite a statement with their self-titled debut. Somehow combining the most maximal elements imaginable in a way that still feels sparse and skeletal, the trio have crafted a sound that is truly original, even when they share the spotlight with friends like Rico Nasty and JPEGMAFIA. “Rap Song Tutorial” deserves special mention as a mini-masterpiece of post-modernism in hip-hop.
Kevin Abstract – ‘ARIZONA BABY’
In which the BROCKHAMPTON frontman strikes out with not only his best solo material to date but an instant and indelible entry to the queer canon. Kevin Abstract‘s songwriting, rapping, and all around charisma are firing on all cylinders on ARIZONA BABY, a powerful meditation on being a young gay artist operating in a sphere not always welcome or open to such modes of identity. As for the devastating emotional balladry on display with “Peach”? Hope you have tissues handy.
Little Simz – ‘GREY Area’
Long on her grind, the spitfire British MC has come into her own on GREY Area, a tightly-wound, multi-hued head trip through the very insightful head of Little Simz. Her bars are top notch, and she shows a remarkable ability to adapt to whatever beats are tossed her way, from the plinking and pulsating groove of “101 FM” to the radiant, mellow meandering of “Flowers.”
Lizzo – ‘Cuz I Love You’
Lizzo‘s long-awaited debut album has been so overwhelmingly showered with praise that it is already becoming a cliché; but here’s the thing dear listeners, believe the hype. Unbelievably well-executed, Cuz I Love You is a big, brassy, multidimensional listening experience that juggles genres with a circus performer-like ease. Not even a guest spot from damn Missy Elliott is enough to distract from the one woman extravaganza that is this glorious record.
Malibu Ken – ‘Malibu Ken’
Very true to its mind-melting album art, you would be hard pressed to find an album trippier in 2019 than Malibu Ken. The debut project from the united duo of MC Aesop Rock and producer TOBACCO is the equivalent of taking three tabs of acid and reading the encyclopedia aloud through a megaphone; gelatinous, squelchy beats that hardly sit still undulate beneath some of the wordiest, most absurd bars in recent memory. Both artists are engaging on their own, but together they are a true force to be reckoned with.
Megan Thee Stallion – ‘Fever’
Fever is a beyond perfect name for Megan Thee Stallion‘s scorching debut, because good Christ is this collection of songs sweltering. Typical signifiers like ‘fierce’ or ‘confident’ don’t come close to touching the magnanimity of Megan’s appeal, not to mention the sheer quality of every single one of these tracks. “Simon Says,” “Pimpin,” and “Hood Rat Shit” are all likely to burn your house down.
slowthai – ’Nothing Great About Britain’
Simply put, slowthai‘s Nothing Great About Britain is among the most bracing, original, and downright important rap debuts in recent memory. With the record’s latter half filled with all the singles that immediately thrust him into the international spotlight, the front end concerns itself with offering a pointed critique of the ills plaguing modern Britain. But perhaps most importantly, even when getting at cutting issues of importance, slowthai never stops having fun – that demonic grin says it all.
Solange – ‘When I Get Home’
Solange surpassed the extremely high bar she set for herself with 2016’s landmark A Seat at the Table with When I Get Home, a record that is intimate and pointillist where its predecessor was expansive and painted in broad strokes. Assembling a who’s who of collaborators while managing to keep the project hermetically sealed within her own vision, the cloud-like bounce of “Stay Flo” and the sun-dappled strut of “Binz” made for some of the year’s most lush sonic forays. This is music that is a vibe entirely unto itself.
Toro y Moi – ‘Outer Peace’
After a few middling records, Toro y Moi has roared back into life with Outer Peace, an album that practically brims over with palpable inspiration. A far cry from the chillwave that first made him a household name (in trendy, cool households at least), this record finds Toro embellishing his songs with a pop-sheen that never borders on outright pop. The bouncy, referential bop that is “Laws of the Universe” and the hyper-satirical “Freelance” are the most fun he’s had in his years; it’s infectious.
Tyler, the Creator – ‘IGOR’
The rapid growth which sprang from 2017’s masterful Flower Boy only continues to blossom with Tyler, the Creator‘s latest. Somehow even more intimate and heartbreaking than his previous release, IGOR is a wrenching journey of heartbreak told over some of the warmest, fuzziest neo-funk he’s made to date. “EARFQUAKE” alone is worth the price of admission, but Tyler has delivered a consummate whole unrivaled in his discography in terms of quality craftsmanship.
See our round up of the best rap songs of the year thus far right here.