The Year 2018 in Review
Author: Sy Shackleford

I don’t think I’ve paid more attention to the news as much as I have for 2018. Between now being forced to discern between facts and “alternative facts”, Washington D.C. politics providing unlimited fodder for late-night comedians, and the deaths of Mac Miller and Stan Lee, there are times when I have considered the validity of the phrase “ignorance is bliss”. But I am a music fan, and hip-hop remains my respite from a world gone madder. I’ve come to realize that no matter how stagnant hip-hop appears, there’s always something in it that gives me something to write on. While certainly not stagnant, hip-hop releases in 2018 were no exception. The year started off unusually strong with the noteworthy albums released. Now that 2018 is mere days before its curtain call, I once again bring to you my best of list, for what I consider the top 10 hip-hop albums of 2018. As usual, I invite my readers to agree, disagree, argue, trash my choices, off suggestions, but most of all, spark discussion. Happy Holidays, Happy New Year and Excelsior!

10.) Artist: Skyzoo
Album Title: In Celebration of Us
Label: First Generation Rich/Empire
Release Date: February 2nd, 2018
Producers: !llmind, Apollo Brown, MarcNfinit, Cardiac, et. al.

If Spike Lee were to ever employ a hip-hop score or soundtrack all throughout one of his films, then he should choose Skyzoo to helm it. The fellow Brooklyn native’s fourth album, “In Celebration of Us”, is a low-key jazz-infused lyrical inspection of Sky’s life growing up as a Black man in his New York City borough. The title of this album is open to broad interpretation. However, considering America’s present-day climate towards people of color as well as the album’s frequent usage of social commentary, I’d say it celebrates the overlooked Black family and their community at large. Skyzoo’s supporting cast in his autobiographical excursion are mostly unknowns (the exception being Raheem Devaughn), but not his production staff. “The Easy Truth” collaborator Apollo Brown makes an appearance while his “Live From the Tape Deck” partner-in-crime !llmind makes several.

A notable feature about this album is how no one involved attempts to go over-the-top. Skyzoo’s not dropping any outlandish bars nor are any of the producers going overboard with the use of samples. Overall, the album attracts the listener’s attention, but does so in a manner that is in no way flashy. Though direct references are both made to and culled from African-American cinema such as “Bamboozled” (2000) and “Boyz N The Hood” (1991), they are done so only in order to accentuate the album’s themes. While Sky isn’t showy, he’s also not completely restrained either. There are several tracks where he’s demonstrative of his ability as an emcee. From his cruise-control flow on “Forever In a Day” to his adaptation to musical changes on “Heirlooms & Accessories”, Skyzoo certainly doesn’t, in a manner of speaking, miss a beat.

“In Celebration of Us” may be a watershed event in Sky’s career. I don’t know, but there’s something that practically screams “growth” when a rapper creates an album that involves reflecting on where they’ve been and the skin they’ve come to shed. I suppose this kind of introspection comes with age and perhaps important life events. But nothing about that makes Sky monolithic, and he describes this dichotomy when he boasts on “Baker’s Dozen” about how “I’m Luke Cage, but more related to Cottonmouth.” Despite a few misses in terms of production or just the overall song quality, this album hits the marks for hip-hop’s variation of adult contemporary.

9.) Artist: Phonte
Album Title: No News Is Good News
Label: The Foreign Exchange Music LLC
Release Date: March 2nd, 2018
Producers: Marco Polo, Nottz, DJ Harrison, Illingsworth, Abjo, DJ Cozmos, et. al.

The proverb of “no news is good news” is practically synonymous with another proverb: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you”. In a day and age where we are saturated with information to the point of overflow, the difficulty persists when it comes to discerning the validity of said information. But you know what’s a more concise proverb? “Ignorance is bliss”. Of course, that statement could be applied to the current state of hip-hop and the bemoaned success of mainstream rappers who readily and proudly admit their lack of knowledge about this genre’s forebearers. While there is some truth in the idea that you become more frustrated with the more information you learn, one really can’t afford to remain stagnant when it comes to a genre as fluid as hip-hop. The Kodak Blacks, the Young Thugs, and the Lil’ Yachties of the rap game are complacent in their ignorance. They’re ignorant particularly in the sense that they don’t know better…rappers, such as Phonte Coleman.

The one thing the former Little Brother rapper does that sets him apart from several of his peers in all spectrums of the genre is his “what you see is what you get” schtick and his lack of grandiosity. Even when he was signed to a major label, he didn’t conform to become a typical mainstream rapper. The fact that he goes by his real name instead of a rap moniker is a testament to Obie Trice’s proverb from 16 years ago of “real name, no gimmicks”. That’s what makes his sophomore album a good listen: Its lack of both gimmicks and fake posturing. He retains his sharp humor and incisive observations about the world, the prototypical Black family, and is as demonstrative as ever concerning his mic skills. He covers all three topics in this album, on the songs “Expensive Genes”, “Cry No More”, and the Marco Polo-produced banger “So Help Me God”, respectively. Freddie Gibbs makes an appearance on “Change of Mind”, allowing Phonte a brief respite from the album’s rapping duties.

In addition, Phontigga enlists several producers to create the kinds of sonic canvasses suited for his lyrical abilities (such as the aforementioned Marco Polo, DJ Harrison, Nottz Raw and King Karnov on the tongue-in-cheek gospel tinged “Pastor Tigallo”). While Phonte has always been a more than capable emcee, what sets his second album apart from his debut is that it establishes him as an emcee who can stand without being tethered to past associations (i.e.: there’s no connection to Little Brother here). In many ways, “No News Is Good News” is analogous to “Creed II” in that the latter is now its own entity without any need from Rocky Balboa. Though only 10 tracks closing in at close to 35 minutes, “No News Is Good News” is one 2018’s strongest hip-hop albums despite its brevity.

8.) Artist: Pusha T
Album Title: Daytona
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Release Date: May 25th, 2018
Producers: Kanye West

This album is the shortest in length on this list (it’s composed of 7 tracks, not more than 21 minutes altogether). Considering the forces behind it, the topics of rhyme, and the choice in producer, one would think that “Daytona” would be longer than an EP’s length. However, Pusha T’s frequent rhymes about his own status, as well as detailed accounts about the luxuries and pitfalls that come with the institution of the drug business, are more like a Gillette Silver Blue than ever. With the pithy “Daytona”, Pusha shows that it’s not how big your blade is, it’s about how sharp it is. His brazenness is not relegated to only his rhymes, but also extends to the album cover itself. Controversial and disturbing, he chose a snapshot of the drug-addled bathroom of the late singer Whitney Houston as the cover. In many respects, the cover choice makes Pusha almost as brash as Kanye West (minus the frequent public meltdowns). Clearly a student of the drug dealing narratives from Kool G Rap and Raekwon, King Push uses the aforementioned blade to carve out space for his own tale, but he’s more incisive in his relentlessness.

Kanye West deserves quite a mention for being the sole producer on “Daytona”. This was the first of five weekly albums birthed from Ye’s “Wyoming Sessions” and is the strongest production-wise. He went back to his roots as a sample-based producer and found plenty of loops and vocals to chop up to go with Pusha’s lines about bricks to chop up (Ha! I crack me up). Kanye’s vintage production style shines strongest on “The Games We Play”, consisting of hard dusty drums, horns, and a blues guitar sample. It sounds almost minimal, however Pusha makes it work for him with lines detailing his knowledge about the intricacies of cocaine dealing. The double-entendre titled “Hard Piano” is a duet with fellow coke dealer-turned rapper Rick Ross, making heavy use of piano keys to spin yarns about the downsides of their respective successes. Even with the popularity of the trap genre, Pusha shines brighter than its current practitioners with trap rhymes which make superior use of imagery, metaphors, wordplay, and a deeper insight into the drug money lifestyle. The closest the album comes to a trap beat is on the introductory song, “If You Know You Know”.

The most talked-about tracks on the album are “What Would Meek Do?”, which features a verse from Kanye, and “Infared” in which Push calls out Drake for employing ghostwriters to write his songs. The “less is more” approach taken with this album actually works in its favor, though. There are no filler tracks and no skits, just an ex-coke dealer who raps circles around today’s trappers with cutting conciseness in his rhymes and output. His brevity alludes to his 2013 debut album “My Name Is My Name”, a quote taken directly from the deadly and taciturn drug kingpin character of Marlo Stanfield from HBO’s “The Wire”. I stated earlier that Pusha is clearly a student of Raekwon. Well, “Daytona” resembles the famed “Purple Tape”…a condensed version of it, but no less detailed in its rhymed criminal exploits. In summation, “Daytona” gives many of the current generation of trappers something to aspire toward.

7.) Artist: Apathy
Album Title: The Widow’s Son
Label: Dirty Version Records
Release Date: March 2nd, 2018
Producers: Apathy, DJ Premier, Stu Bangas, Pete Rock, Buckwild, Nottz, Chumzilla, et. al.

Very few rappers have covered and mastered the range of areas in hip-hop music that Apathy has. Though primarily known for his intricate trash-taking battle rhymes, he’s demonstrated that he has a confident stranglehold on utilizing different flows, painting vivid storytelling lyrics, and incorporating detailed topical rhymes. Additionally, he’s a double-threat emcee/producer who is just as comfortable behind the boards as he is on the mic. The one aspect of rhyme he excels at is concepts. He’s made songs describing the effects of chemicals on the human body, rapped from the point-of-view of a $1 bill, and even made an entire album giving an American Beauty-style look at his home state of Connecticut. His latest album, “The Widow’s Son”, is partly an attempt to meld hip-hop with Freemasonry, an oft-misunderstood fraternal organization of which he is a member. Does he succeed? I say “yes” because by the end of the Stu Bangas-produced “Legend of the 3rd Degree”, any listener should have experienced a hip-hop crash-course that dispels any negative connotations about the Masonic.

Apart from the educational aspect, the production deserves mention. The incomparable DJ Premier lends his always-welcome magic touch on “The Order”, the Chocolate Boy Wonder Pete Rock lends both his vocals and sample chops on the Pharoahe Monch-assisted “I Keep On”; while Buckwild digs deep in the crates for “A View of Hell (Hell of a View)”. Apathy himself produces several tracks. A sample-based beatsmith, he shows that he can create sounds that are as varied as his concepts, from the guitar crunch of “Stomp Rappers” and the smooth soul-sampled on “Rise & Shine”. Those two self-produced tracks also contain stellar guest features from Celph Titled and M.O.P. as well as Locksmith, respectively. The best guest appearance comes courtesy of Diabolic on “Fist of the North Star” with punchlines like “I hate you rappers, every verse off your list of songs / is my dick givin’ chicks anal: A turn off when shit is on.”

It’s worth noting that, even though Freemasonry is the album’s prevalent concept, what ties its beginning and ending together is a theme of death. Apathy began the album with a vocal death knell for his rap opponents and ends it by using the Force-Ghost concept from “Star Wars” on “Obi Wan” to big-up his deceased father, whom he has credited for more than just his rap moniker. Though Apathy’s roots are planted in the ’90s style of hip-hop, his brand of music is vastly preferable to what’s currently widely accepted in rap. With “The Widow’s Son”, he’s added another feather in his cap, showing that there’s nothing wrong with being a well-rounded hip-hop artist with the skills to back up his gumption.

6.) Artist: Logic
Album Title: Young Sinatra IV
Label: Visionary Music Group/Def Jam
Release Date: September 28th, 2018
Producers: 6ix, Logic, Vontae Thomas, Cubeatz, et. al.

Logic is one of two mainstream artists (both signed to Def Jam) to make this list. Not that I’m against mainstream, it’s just that what usually tickles my fancy isn’t that. But much like his peers J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, Logic is part of a group that’s practically an endangered species in hip-hop: Major-label rappers who can actually spit. His albums have always been conceptual no doubt due to his own cinematic influence, but each of them show that Logic is a lyricist who can destroy a mic. With “Young Sinatra IV”, he significantly tones down the epic sci-fi drama themes that permeated his last two albums. Though the “Young Sinatra” series has usually been marketed as mixtapes, this fourth entry is accepted as an actual album. With the majority of the production done by his longtime collaborator, 6ix, Logic goes in with a competitive bent this time.

In the past, Logic has made no secret of his inner pain and how he deals with anxiety. But on this album, the side of him that’s a rap fiend takes center stage. He released his “Bobby Tarantino” mixtape earlier in the year, but his usual confidence on the mic is far more robust on “YSIV”. On “The Return”, he goes so far as to call out his label’s former president to see him for a potential collaboration. He has several guest features, but three of them are stand-outs: The lead single “One Day” which features singer-songwriter Ryan Tedder on the hook; “100 Miles & Running” with fellow Maryland emcee Wale; and the best one of all, “Wu-Tang Forever”. Unlike the Drake song of the same name, Logic’s version is not only a direct reference to the group, but also features new verses from all of their living members.

The other best tracks are the title-track, in which Logic lampshades his status as “an emcee worth $50 million who still raps on break-beats” and then switches the beat half way through the song to give a “I Gave You Power”-style extended metaphor narrative about money, and then “The Adventures of Stoney Bob”, an ode to Bobby’s newfound love of rich greenery. He even closes out the album with his own rendition of Kanye West’s “Last Call”, a 10-minute half-rapped half-spoken word improv track. With “YSIV”, Logic shows that it is possible to gain mainstream recognition while having complex bars regardless of the topic, the two are not mutually exclusive.

5.) Artist: Jericho Jackson (Khrysis & eLZhi)
Album Title: Khrysis & eLZhi Are Jericho Jackson
Label: Jamla Records
Release Date: February 23rd, 2018
Producers: Khrysis

Detroit emcee eLZhi’s album “Lead Poison” was among the best hip-hop albums released in 2016. His penchant for lyrics revolving around narratives, extended metaphors, and his own struggles all over Motown sampling beats made it an underground hip-hop tour-de-force. He has now followed up on that release two years later in the form of a collaborative effort with Justus League producer Khrysis. Forming together like Voltron as “Jericho Jackson”, their album starts off with a continuation of eLZhi addressing his known anxiety issues on “Overthinking”. However, his swag makes a return on “Self-Made” with a hook that goes “Self made since twelfth grade, this my calling / Every jewel I drop is money out the sky falling / El is that nigga, some of y’all forgotten what I’m jotting / My pen bleed while yours be blood clotting.” He even turns the term “Cuffin’ Season” on its a head via a track of the same name, creating two verses about awareness of law enforcement’s racial profiling.

Much of Khrysis’s beats consist of smooth jazz samples tailored and reconfigured to El’s flow, but his best production on the album belongs to “Seventeen”. A second person autobiographical narrative, Khrysis switches the beat to one built from a Michael Wyckoff sample to show the narrative’s plot thickening in the second verse. Khrysis also makes frequent use of vocal samples to highlight that unease that eLZhi wears on his sleeve. He provides a sampled violin-driven beat on “To Do List”, providing El with a soundscape to wax about his personal goals and setbacks, aiming to “create gold bars from lead, call it alchemy”. Khrysis even steps from behind the boards and rocks the mic on “Talkin’ Bout”, providing both the hook and the first verse. For his part in the song, El re-emphasizes his confidence in himself and as an emcee with self-aware lines like “Hate to be the one to tell ya / That my setback isn’t failure / And you’ll never be this stellar.”

With 11 tracks and no guest rappers, Jericho Jackson have made an album dripping with bass and jazz samples reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest’s music and lyrics with more dimensions and forms than what you’d find in “Interstellar” (2014). Though the album is without any filler tracks, if there’s one drawback I can pick out, it’s that the album could have gone on for just a bit longer. Even though many of El’s lyrics are peppered with confessions of his anxiety and the perceived probabilities that come with it, he and Khrysis still manage to create a sound that contributes to the tried-but-true formula of one emcee/one producer.

4.) Artist: Royce Da 5’9″
Album Title: Book of Ryan
Label: eOne Music/Heaven Studios, Inc.
Release Date: May 4th, 2018
Producers: Mr. Porter, Boi-1da, DJ Khalil, Key Mane, !llmind, et. al.

Posse cuts. Battle rhymes. Confessional songs. Reflective lyrics. Those are just a small sliver of what you’re in for when you listen to the latest offering from Royce Da 5’9″. While the title invokes both biblical imagery and connotations of the divine/grandiose claims that rappers tend to make in regards to their own status or mic skills, “Book of Ryan” is more akin to a scrapbook of assorted memories carefully splayed open by Royce without embellishment. While he has the level of introspection that other rappers have manipulated to their own advantage, the difference is that doesn’t Royce spread his to garner attention and sales (i.e.: Drake). He remains an emcee, one dedicated to the craft enough to keep his pen game in shape and prepared to translate any topic into his own rhymed form.

A good portion of the album is produced by Mr. Porter, who provided his contributions to eight of the album’s tracks. However, other producers were behind the boards for some of the more stand-out tracks. We’ve got the !llmind-produced “Still Woke”; the harrowing childhood memory of “Cocaine” which DJ Khalil produced; and the J. Cole-assisted “Boblo Boat” (featuring J. Cole) produced by 808-Ray and Cool & Dre, to name a few. Royce also chose well with his guest features, with King Green and Eminem on “Caterpillar” and then there was the posse cut “Summer on Lock”. Featuring Pusha T, Jadakiss, Agent Sasco, and Fabolous, it’s the latter guest who manages to outshine everyone on it. The relationship between father and son in the Black community is touched upon heavily in hip-hop, and not often in a good way. That theme is prevalent on “Book of Ryan” with Royce frequently reflecting on the father-son dynamic he had with his own father and now with a son of his own.

Though I’ve always considered Royce to be an emcee worth checking out, I have to admit that this album nearly escaped my attention if not for a friend who recommended it to me. I’m glad for that because “Book of Ryan” is not merely a showcase of Royce’s skills, but it’s kind of an origin story in concept. There’s Royce Da 5’9″, rapper extraordinaire and then there’s the man from whom the rapper was shaped: Ryan Montgomery. “Book of Ryan” puts the man’s childhood, family relationships, first contact with hip-hop, and the juxtaposition with his present-day life all on display for the listener’s ear. It was that vulnerability and the manner in which it was musically translated which made “Book of Ryan” one of the better albums hip-hop offered in 2018.

3.) Artist: Evidence
Album Title: Weather or Not
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Release Date: January 26th, 2018
Producers: Evidence, The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Nottz, DJ Babu, Twiz the Beat Pro, Nudgie, & Samiyam

Whether with Dilated Peoples or via his own solo career, Evidence made his own path in hip-hop through persistence and perseverance. He’s a double-threat emcee/producer whose skills have been sought out among the elite of subterranean hip-hop. It is this very grind which has culminated in the long-awaited third entry in his “Weatherman” album series, “Weather or Not”. For me, this album was the leading force for numerous high-grade 2018 hip-hop releases and Evidence’s best release since his 2007 solo debut, “The Weatherman LP”. The west coast-born emcee is cognizant of how he is perceived by some as one-dimensional and even lampshades this with a line on the DJ Babu-produced title track: “Some think I’m clever / Others think I’m the one who makes too many references to weather…or not.” This album veers more towards the “or not” component, with a mixture of braggadocio, personal confessions, and an emphasis on quality rather than quantity.

While Evidence has never been a tongue-twisting rapper with complex rhymes, he nonetheless holds his own on the mic. A two-bar rhyme from him carries more poignancy and weight than an entire verse from today’s most successful mainstream artists (“Things I never thought about / Try to be elusive and, in process, get forgot about” from the self-produced “Runners”). Also, being a producer, he has an ear for the kind beats that he can work with as a rapper. The album’s sample-based production is provided courtesy of himself, Twiz the Beat Pro, longtime friend/collaborator The Alchemist, and the stellar DJ Premier. Both Evidence and the Alchemist display production styles on this album that consist of flipping samples into psychedelic boom-bap soundscapes, and Evidence’s rhymes sound best over those beats (such as “Throw It All Way” and “What I Need”). Several of the beats are head-nodders, but the standouts are the bouncy Nottz-laced “Jim Dean” and “10,000 Hours” with DJ Premier’s unmistakable production trademarks.

The guest appearances are also well-picked. The final two Alchemist-produced tracks on the album consist of the posse-cut “Love is a Funny Thing” featuring Khrysis, Styles P., and Rapsody; and “Sell Me This Pen” is assisted by Mach-Hommy and a rare verse from Alchemist himself. However, on “Powder Cocaine”, Evidence gets got on his own track by a well put-together verse by Rhymesayers label-mate Slug from Atmosphere. Apart from offering rhymes reflecting on his come-up and the state of hip-hop, he shows his vulnerability in full-force on the album’s closer “By My Side Too” by rapping about the impact that his son’s birth and his girlfriend’s cancer infection has had on him. Even with the mixed variety of rapped topics and producers enlisted, “Weather or Not” is possessed of a consistency in sound that made it enjoyable for many rap fans who caught wind of it. The issuance of such a quality album in January made it the starting point for good hip-hop releases in 2018.

2.) Artist: Masta Ace & Marco Polo
Album Title: A Breukelen Story
Label: Fat Beats Records
Release Date: November 9th, 2018
Producers: Marco Polo

Masta Ace’s inclination for packaging his LPs as concept albums is neither new nor old. At this point, it’s actually become expected of him to do so each time. It’s an expectation that sits well with this listener considering the cinematic details he brings in addition to his razor-honed skills as an emcee. His last three solo albums, “The Falling Season” (2016), “A Long Hot Summer” (2004)”, and “Disposable Arts” (2001) were each narratives about a fictionalized version of Ace. What’s more is that those three albums are connected to one another, with each subsequent release since 2001 acting as a prequel to the last, giving a reverse chronology to the overall narrative. Though “A Breukelen Story” is a concept album, it is outside of his solo albums and more about the album’s sole producer, Marco Polo. His voyage from his native Canada to hip-hop’s mecca, and from his beginnings as a an unpaid intern at the Cutting Room studios to a full-fledged rap producer provide the album’s broad story which is expressed in the album’s skits. As for the actual songs, Ace’s skills speak for themselves and prove why he’s still one of the nastiest and most conscientious veteran emcees to ever rock a mic.

Marco’s flair for finding samples and converting them into a ’90s boom-bap sound made him a venerated figure among hip-hop luminaries who hold a candle to that style. Marco’s own take on that iteration of hip-hop music had several critics (myself included) hailing him as the potential heir to both DJ Premier and Pete Rock. But influences notwithstanding, Mr. Polo takes the material that he’s been given and makes it work on his own. Take the lead single “Breukelen ‘Brooklyn'”, for example. It’s built mostly from a piano sample, but he created an urban melody out of it for Ace and guest rappers Smif-N-Wessun to big-up their native borough of Brooklyn on. One of the treats on a Masta Ace album, even a collaborative effort such as this, is his ability to make entire tracks out of unusual ideas for hip-hop songs. He’s done conceptual songs that play with the English alphabet, soda and cleaning brands, and pro-football as an extended metaphor. But here, he takes aim at the desire for fame in the current rap game (in “Wanna Be”, a duet between himself and Marlon Craft from Hell’s Kitchen) and in “The Fight Song”, he created a battle rap between himself and his own body (specfically his multiple sclerosis affliction with rapper Pharoahe Monch as the disease’s lyrical avatar).

To tie in the cinematic connection that are abound on this album, “A Breukelen Story” is a play on “A Bronx Tale” (1993): While not a crime-drama, the album certainly does speak on crime in various songs such as “Sunken Place”, “American Me”, and “Count ‘Em Up”. Because its themes deviate from current typical hip-hop conventions, it’ll share the same fate as most underground hip-hop albums: “A Breukelen Story” has been released to very little commercial fare, but great critical acclaim. Though albums like this will never accrue the numbers they deserve, that mere fact does nothing to detract from this album’s quality. A mixture of comedy, drama, and social commentary, Marco and Ace created an album that follows the concept tradition that began on Prince Paul’s “A Prince Among Thieves” from 1999.

1.) Artist: Apollo Brown & Locksmith
Album Title: No Question
Label: Mello Music Group
Release Date: June 15th, 2018
Producers: Apollo Brown

I’ve been a fan of Locksmith since I saw him perform on a radio freestyle at Shade45 back in 2015. His tongue twisting rhyme style, use of wordplay, and his insightful poignancy made me an instant fan. After copping all of his albums, some of which consisted of self-produced material, I admired him even more for his do-it-yourself aesthetic. Enter 2018 and Detroit producer Apollo Brown. With Mr. Brown’s reputation for creating sample-based boom-bap influenced beats, his track record (so to speak) in collaborating with underground emcees for entire albums is also impressive. So, it was merely a matter of time before the Midwest once again met with the West to create an album that, though short in length, would be packed with an explosive sonic force. The union of Apollo Brown and Locksmith was teased on the single “Litmus”, a head-knocking sonic mosaic with Locksmith’s literate rhymes painted on top of it. When their official album dropped, it did more than meet my own expectations, it exceeded them. Despite being eight tracks with twenty-three minutes combined and considering Apollo’s prolific work this year with other emcees (Chris Orrick and Joell Ortiz), “No Question” has been the most-played album from my 2018 hip-hop purchases and the genre’s best release for the year.

Apollo departs from his usual penchant of incorporating movie-sampled dialogue into his beats and just simply produces. Apart from “Litmus”, the chemistry between him and Locksmith also shines on the title track with its string samples and Lock’s pro-Black lyrics (“Attached to Comics, we Marvel at their barrage / instead of real-life super-heroes: El Hajj Malik Shabazz”). A good portion of the album focuses on reminiscence and hindsight. The DJ Premier-influenced “Between the Raindrops” has Lock rapping in the third person (or perhaps about himself) about a misfit teen who finds solace in hip-hop music. “Advice to My Younger Self” is a well-rapped reverie of wishful thinking and some regret-tinged wisdom. Although the sped-up high-pitched Chipmunk-style vocal sampling was overdone in the last decade with producers like Kanye West and the Heatmakerz, Apollo applies that technique very nicely over “In My Element” for Lock’s autobiographical lyrics. The album is closed with “Wake Up”. With the track’s robust drum programming manipulated to sound reversed one instant to another, Locksmith spits some gems encouraging positivity without deluded optimism.

Of all underground hip-hop labels, the Mello Music Group has been the most consistent in terms of both its quality of released albums and the level of output. Because of that, at least one of their albums has been finding its way onto my top 10 hip-hop lists annually since 2012. Given what I’ve heard on this particular album since the summer, “No Question” is no exception. It’s always a pleasurable synthesis of sound when the emcee and the producer go well together, even when the combo looks suspect on paper. Through Apollo’s dedication for finding gold in unearthed samples and adding his own polish to them, as well as Locksmith’s grounded yet imaginative lyrical skill-set (he’s more than just sick punchlines, multis, and wordplay), this album unquestionably belongs at number one on this list.