With yet another year gone by we want to thank you all again for taking our online reader poll for the top Hip-Hop album of 2018 and for helping us celebrate our second full year of operation here at Step Off! Magazine. This year reader’s choice award for top album of 2018 goes to The Black Panther Original Soundtrack, with an overwhelming majority of thirty-two percent of readers voting it as their favorite album of 2018. In a four-way tie for second place, Anderson .PAAK’s Oxnard, J. Cole’s, KOD, Cypress Hill’s Elephant’s On Acid and reader write-in The Perquisite from ILL Conscious all earned nine percent of the vote each respectively. Followed by Jedi Mind Tricks, Phonte, Royce Da 5’9, Nipsey Hussle, Tragedy Khadafi, Migos and Travis Scott who all earned between four to five percent of the vote each respectively for their projects released this year. Thank you to all the readers who took part in our poll, we hope that next year you will all join us again to not only rank the top albums of 2019 but help us rank the top albums of the past decade as well! Below we have listed a chart showing the reader breakdown of the poll; as well as our very own top Hip-Hop albums of 2018. Happy New Years Step Off! fam, we look forward to seeing you all for another prosperous year in 2019!
#5. Jay Rock: Redemption
In a year filled with stellar albums, one label that continued to deliver quality music into 2018 was Top Dawg Entertainment. Home to some of the most creative and charismatic talent in the industry, TDE continued its march into 2018 delivering several quality albums during the course of the year. However, it’s not always easy to stand out when you’re part of a label whose roster includes the likes industry heavyweights such as Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and SZA just to name a few. It can be even more difficult when you’re also known for being one-fourth of the Hip-Hop supergroup Black Hippy, also comprised of TDE label-mates Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul well. Surrounded by an entire team of talented, rappers, singers and producers, for much of his career this the exact position Jay Rock has found himself precariously caught in the middle of. And as TDE’s eldest and most experienced artist on the roster, the Watts rapper can sometimes be overlooked even by TDE fans themselves. However, 2018 proved to be a breakthrough year for Jay Rock with the release of his third studio album, Redemption. Coming nearly three years after the release of his Sophomore album 90059 in 2015; Redemption was met with critical acclaim and debuted at number 13 on the US Billboard 200 making it Jay Rock’s highest-charting album to date. Lead with the single ‘King’s Dead’ with Kendrick Lamar, Future and James Blake, lifted from the Black Panther Original Soundtrack released earlier in the year; the album has marked by far one of the most successful years for the TDE artist yet and overall career-high. While holding no real thematic anchor, or overall grander concept like that often utilized by label mate Kendrick Lamar; the album is a no-nonsense bare-basics west coast album that recounts tales and experiences of Jay Rock’s youth growing up in Watts, California. The album also features a myriad of notable guest features which include artists such as J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Future, Jeremih and SZA amongst others. Likewise, the album also features true who’s who of production credits featuring Sounwave, Hit-Boy, Mike Will Made It, Boi-1da; as well as Jake One who all contribute to the album’s sonic tapestry. In senses Redemption really does live up to its namesake, in an industry where artists rarely get a chance to begin let alone a second one; Redemption not only spotlights Jay Rock’s creativity but his resilience in an increasingly unforgiving, dog eat dog industry. While Redemption may not have been one of the most cerebral or conscious releases of 2018; it was certainly one of the most and entertaining to listen to that still provided a unique and one of a kind perspective for listeners to dive into. With Redemption, Jay Rock has proven that not only is he more than capable of hanging with his TDE label-mates, but, that there will assuredly be much more to hear from him far beyond 2018.
#4. Masta Ace & Marco Polo: A Breukelen Story
It’s hard being an underground Hip-Hop fan in 2018. Not to say that great music is hard to find, in fact, if anything great quality music is easier to listen to and get a hold of than ever before; if you know the right places to look for it. That being said, as modern-day contemporary Hip-Hop continually drifts farther away from the most basic tenants and attributes that have defined the genre it can become increasingly difficult to strike a balance when ranking releases between contemporary mainstream releases that continually sound less like Hip-Hop albums and less known, but equally or sometimes even superior underground releases that uphold and revere these basic tenants. However, sometimes certain underground projects come along that is so well executed, with so much replay value it is impossible to deny their quality. If there is an album that stood out from the already packed crowd of extraordinary underground releases, perhaps no project is more worthy than A Breukelen Story the latest collaboration between long time, veteran Brooklyn wordsmith Masta Ace and long collaborator Marco Polo. Like most of Masta Ace’s projects, A Breukelen Story is a conceptually driven record, this time focusing on telling the story of Marco’s journey from Toronto, Canada to Brooklyn New York. The album chronicles the Toronto producer’s early days interning as a sound engineer in New York City during the early 2000s, leading up to his eventual meeting and friendship with Masta Ace. Of course mixed in between this encompassing narrative Ace discusses a wide range of topics ranging from gentrification in New York, the brutality of the NYPD, mass incarceration, personal relationships, as well as the struggle of being a veteran artist in a ever-changing Hop-Hop scene among many which is all fleshed out into a engaging, compelling and ultimately very timely narrative. Like most Masta Ace projects the album’s beauty lies in the complexity of its simplicity. While many heavy and at times difficult conversations are to be had in regards to the grievances Ace addresses in the album’s music, album’s storyline has still largely focused around Ace and Marco recounting their memories and experiences growing in New York. With the clever use of dialogue and exposition, the album’s various interludes are cleverly used to bridge songs and create engaging, captivating narratives. In the past, Masta Ace’s albums have at times been likened to being films on wax; with encompassing concepts and complex, engaging storylines his albums have been hailed as some of the best examples of the ‘concept album’ ever executed in the genre. And A Breukelen Story is certainly no exception to this long-standing tradition. Likewise, Marco Polo’s expertly crafted production only enhances Aces raw, potent lyrics heard here on A Breukelen Story. Marco Polo’s classic, unmistakable Boom Bap inspired production compliments Ace’s no holds barred, New York-style emceeing in a unique way that perfectly captures the essence, feeling and attitude of Brooklyn, New York. While it could have been easy to dismiss the album as another cash-in between a veteran artist and pricier using old dusty, boom-bap production to appeal to stubborn fan base; A Breukelen Story manages to properly capture spirit and felling of New York and is a shining example of what Hip-Hop is supposed to sound when done right. More than thirty years into his career it is an understatement to say that Masta Ace is by far one of the most consistent and adept lyricist in Hip-Hop still producing music; which is only propelled by some of the best production in the genre courtesy of Marco Polo. At a time where the genre is oversaturated with artists that constantly recycle tired, cliched material, A Breukelen Story is a testament to the long, and lavish legacies both Masta Ace and Marco Polo have meticulously crafted for themselves. As a quality project, it is highly likely A Breukelen Story will not only go down as one of the highlights of 2018 but, enjoy a long life of heavy replay value far into the future as well.
#3. J. Cole: KOD
One trend that has gained popularity in recent years and persisted well into 2018 is the marketing tactic of the ‘surprise’ release album. From Beyonce to Jay-Z to even artists like Kendrick Lamar and Nas; artists releasing surprise albums that materialize out of nowhere with little to no prior announcement and promotion have become increasingly popular and more abundant in an era where the attention span of listeners, as well as the shelf life of an album, seem to be shorter than ever. While many Hip-Hop artists dropped surprise albums this year (i.e. The Carters and Nasir) perhaps none were as influential or decidedly critical as J. Cole’s KOD. Often interpreted as ‘Kids on Drugs, ‘King Overdosed’ and ‘Kill Our Demons’ the multilayered album has largely been seen as J. Cole’s response to the rise in popularity to not only trap music and the mumble rappers who make it but the dangerous drug culture that accompanies much of the music and is increasingly glamorized by young artists. While many younger rappers who make a career off of playing up these tropes and embodying these stereotypes to sell music to fans and a larger audiences, bristled at the critical lens J. Cole placed on the sub-genre with KOD there has perhaps never been a more relevant time for the genre as a whole to take a step back and take a long, introspective look in the mirror and contemplate the direction of the music and broader culture. The past several years, 2018 especially, was not a particularly great year for young Hip-Hop artists. In the span of year artists such as Lil’ Peep, Fredo Santana and most recently Mac Miller (who was a past collaborator and friend of J. Cole) were just some of many young Hip-Hop artists to recently die of drug overdoses or complications resulting from long term heavy recreational drug and opiate abuse. These deaths among young artists within the genre has only increased with frightening frequency in recent years and in this day and age when glamorizing dangerous synthetic drugs is increasingly taking center stage with certain sub-genres of Hip-Hop; it makes sense that eventually an artist of J. Cole’s candor and caliber would focus a critical lens on the generous less than respectable and dangerous trends of many popular, contemporary Hip-Hop artists. While the abuse of prescription drugs and other highly addictive, dangerous opiate narcotics continues largely unchallenged in a meaningful, tangible way; J. Cole opted to address the issue in the form of biting satire. Breaking away from his signature style of sampled and more traditional Hip-Hop inspired production; Cole essentially created a trap-inspired album. Employing all the same predictable, tired cliches that are found throughout much of the music; for example, repetitive hooks trap drums, fast hi-hats, overall stripped-down production and a stock staccato flow delivery. What J. Cole ultimately delivers is an album that is heavy in content and forces the audience to listen in a different manner than they might have otherwise. Utilizing the ‘beat them at their own game’ strategy, through the use of parody and satire this album places a crosshair on the genre’s less than stellar qualities; shedding a critical light on those activities, as well as the circumstances, and social challenges that lead to drug abuse, wasteful spending, and in the end self-destruction which is all cleverly explored and captured in the album’s run time. KOD is by no means J. Cole’s best work, the album’s modern-day trap-inspired production does get old very quickly and even though the album was a noble attempt to shine a spotlight on one of Hip-Hop’s most pressing issue; long-time fans were needless to say disappointed that a majority of the album was dominated by the satire of the trap elements. That being said, KOD is arguably also one of J. Cole’s most focused and powerful work to date, on top of proving once more that he is more than capable of holding down an entire album without any features the album also serves as a masterfully executed critique and satire of modern Hip-Hop culture and trends. In an age where Hip-Hop artists are increasingly afraid to be critical of younger artists in fear of being derived as old or out of touch; J. Cole is boldly critical of the dangerous activities his younger peers and musical contemporaries regularly glamorize and champion. In the wake of Mac Miller’s passing this past summer as the result of a subsequent drug overdose, the album has sadly taken on even more relevance and significance in the near year since its initial release. As a sad hallmark, KOD will not only likely go down as one of the most influential stand out albums of 2018, but likely one of the most biting and relevant albums in the years to come as well.
#2. Anderson .PAAK: Oxnard
Out of all the releases that dropped in 2018, few artists had us on our toes quite like Anderson. PAAK. With the uncanny ability to effortlessly infuse various musical styles into the R&B genre, walking a thin tightrope blurring the lines between vocalist, emcee and producer Anderson .PAAK has created a myriad of musical soundscapes that at times both mock and defy musical categorization. With his distinctive, raspy vocals layered over old school inspired R&B production, the Oxnard native’s unique blend of relaxed Soul infused with Hip-Hop undertones has forged his own lane and created music quite unlike anything else that has been heard in recent memory. So, when it was abruptly announced at the end of this past summer that the Oxnard singer would be releasing his third solo effort appropriately titled Oxnard in November fans were ecstatic. Coming nearly two years after the release of his Grammy-nominated sophomore album Malibu, as well as his collaborative LP Yes, Lawd! with producer Knxwledge as NxWorries at the end of 2016 few artists have showcased the musical fluidity and work ethic to match what of Anderson. PAAK. Maintaining a busy work profile between the release of his last full-length efforts,.PAAK has made guest appearances on A Tribe Called Quest’s final album Thank You For Your Service…We’ll take it from Here, The Black Panther Original Soundtrack as well as a slew of other features on various artists’ projects such as Mac Miller and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis respectively. While Oxnard was meant to be the third and final entry in .PAAK’S so-called ‘Beach Series’ (which includes both Venice and Malibu), the album is anything but a mere retreading of old musical ground. Never one to play it safe or remained musically boxed in, .PAAK with the assistance of executive producer Dr. Dre embarks on a musical venture of a much larger and grander scale than anything previously recorded by the Oxnard artist in past efforts. Packed to the brim guest features, showcasing the talents of artists such as Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Pusha T and BJ The Chicago Kid; as well as boasting production talents of 9th Wonder, Dr. Dre, Q-Tip, and Dem Jointz; Oxnard is easily the most ambitious, star-studded project .PAAK has ever released to date. With the album’s myriad of different performers and hand-picked producers all contributing to create different variations, Oxnard is sonically diverse and unpredictable as an album can possibly be. However, this being said it’s the album’s vast ambition that is unfortunately where some of its own faults lie. An unlikely drawback due to the album’s large scope and ambitious magnitude is the new production that is featured on much of the project. It’s no secret that the production on Oxnard is arguably some of the best produced and most professionally done body of work Anderson .PAAK has ever released in his entire career. With all that said, however, this decidedly more polished sound featured through much of Oxnard’s removes most of the more lo-fi and dusty qualities heard on past efforts like Malibu and Yes! Lawd!. Essentially, most of the charm and signature sound that gave .PAAK’s prior work on Venice, Malibu and Yes, Lawd! their own unique identity ultimately gives way to the more modern and polished sounding production courtesy of executive producer Dr. Dre. While this new tone and style do diverge from .PAAK’s past work, Oxnard is still nonetheless a funk romp with plenty of replay value. Guest appearances from artists Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Snoop Dog are easily some of the album’s top highlights; showcasing an excellent balance of contrasting guest stars who all manage to bring their own unique style and flair without completely outshining the host artist on their own work. While Oxnard may lack the laid back, lo-fi, old school charm of its predecessors, the album is without a spectacle to be heard. With the stakes high at this point in his career Anderson .PAAK has proved not only is he a more than capable at replicating success; but, in the hands of other talented producers he’s able to push his craft to new heights and avoid becoming musically stagnant. In the past Anderson .PAAK has given us an abundance of variety and envelope-pushing projects for listeners to digest; with the new risks and chances taken on Oxnard listeners will certainly be coming back for more repeat listens not only on the project but for future endeavors from Anderson .PAAK as well.
#1. Various Artists: The Black Panther Original Soundtrack
It’s an understatement to say that in a year filled with absolutely stellar releases, no piece of work in film, music, television, etc. was as hyped and eagerly anticipated as Marvel’s big-screen adaption of its iconic superhero Black Panther. Needless to say, Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018 was not just simply another movie or even another superhero movie; the Ryan Coogler directed film was a behemoth cultural event of epic proportions in every sense of the term. Holding the record for highest-grossing film of 2018, grossing $700,059,566 in the United States and Canada, highest opening weekend gross for a Black director as well as the third highest-grossing film of all time; these along with an avalanche of other records were all smashed in the wake of its release. Lauded by critics and absolutely beloved by fans, Marvel’s Black Panther was by far one of the most celebrated and acclaimed works of art released in all of 2018. So, it’s only appropriate that a film of such distinction and near-universal praise was likewise accompanied by a soundtrack of equal caliber. Much like the acclaimed motion picture it accompanied, The Black Panther Original Soundtrack was a high energy, artistically driven album that captured the mood, demeanor, and energetic vibrancy sonically to accompany the Afrofuturist spectacular that director Ryan Coogler committed to film onscreen. Likewise, since a film of extraordinary proportions demands the artistic input of equal proficiency, Marvel and Coogler smartly tapped Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar to both executively produce and curate the film’s soundtrack. As one of the most driven and consistent Hip-Hop artist on the mainstream end of the spectrum, since the release of his critically acclaimed effort To Pimp A Butterfly back in 2015 not a single year has gone by where Lamar hasn’t released a project in some form or fashion; and 2018 was certainly no exception to this run. Setting itself apart from most contemporary movie soundtracks, The Black Panther Original Soundtrack boasted a track listing of all original material; featuring music both from and inspired by the motion picture. Harkening back to the golden era of the early and mid 90’s when all-original Hip-Hop inspired projects were plentiful, Black Panther featured a varied assortment of collaborators. Featuring familiar faces such as fellow Top Dawg Entrainment label mates Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and SZA; the soundtrack also flexed a cavalcade of established and rising stars which included the likes of Anderson. PAAK, Babes Wodumo, Jorja Smith, Khalid, Future, Mozzy, Reason, SOB X RBE, Sjava, Swae Lee, Travis Scott, Vince Staples, The Weekend, Yugen Blakrok, Zacari and 2 Chainz who all contributed the soundtrack’s lush and varied tracklisting. Much like Black Panther’s own cast, the performers enlisted by Lamar to contribute to the accompanying project’s sound represented a diverse cross-section of the African diaspora with talent hailing from South Africa, the United Kingdom Canada and of course the United States. Then end result being a diverse sonic collage of tracks deriving elements from Hip-Hop, R&B, Trap and U.K. Soul which ultimately gave the album its own unique, eclectic soundscape. Now, nearly a year later does Black Panther still retain its replay value, long after the hype of the film it accompanied has died down? In short, yes. While Lamar himself does make an appearance on practically every one of the album’s fourteen tracks (whether it be solo tracks, brief guest spots, or spacey, intermittent vocal interludes), he still manages to give just enough creative input, without being too domineering or overstaying his welcome on other performer’s tracks on the album. Here on Black Panther, Lamar manages to strike a good balance between performer and executive producer; allowing the soundtrack’s lesser-known and upcoming performers ample time to shine. While not nearly as concept-driven or disciplined as one would expect from a Kendrick Lamar solo album, as an original soundtrack that is less narrative and story-driven and more geared towards immersing the listener into the world and atmosphere of the film; Black Panther manages to the marks its supposed a majority of the time. The album does, however, have its own faults here and there; and the soundtrack certainly has ample evidence of Lamar’s fingerprints all over the project, both sonically and thematically. Much like Kendrick Lamar’s solo albums, the soundtrack can be tonally inconsistent at times and at least one occasion does bring the soundtrack’s momentum to a grinding halt about halfway through the album. The few moments aside, most of the album’s featured artists by in large hit all of their intended targets on the soundtrack. Perhaps the beauty of the album is that it knows it’s supposed to be a soundtrack; while it doesn’t get too cerebral by tasking Lamar as the soundtrack’s executive producer it knows that it needs to take its subject matter seriously. And by in large that is what’s reflected in the album’s runtime. At the end of the day Black Panther not only the best soundtrack to come out this year, its easily one of the best original soundtracks to come out in years, perhaps being the best to accompany a major Hollywood motion picture in over the past decade. In an era where original soundtracks made up of original content for the film is increasingly becoming an endangered species; it was refreshing to see both Ryan Coogler and Marvel willing to take a risk on Kendrick Lamar to enlist some of the most promising talent currently in the industry to create a sonic tapestry to accompany what is arguably one of the pivotal films of the decade. Much like the film itself, The Black Panther Original Soundtrack is likely to retain its replay value far beyond its initial release and well beyond 2018. It’s hopeful that with the success of Black Panther the soundtrack will reinvigorate Hollywood to once again to task artists with the duty of crafting original Hip-Hop soundtracks to accompany more films in the future instead of simply cherry-picking generic top 40 hits from film’s release year. Ultimately, Black Panther not only works as a soundtrack, but manages to stand on its own two legs as stand-alone album as well; not only making it our top album of the year but one of our top original soundtracks of all time as well.