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Biggest Surprises in Hip-Hop in 2018

From Drake and Meek Mill's reunion to Beyoncé and JAY-Z's surprise album, 2018 has been a year filled with "Holy f**k!" moments and music.

Say what you like, 2018 has been a marked year for music. While critique is very serious business, we are also human and what we like is all the more special than the critical appraisal of an album. For the next month, every day, you will find our staff picks for our favorite facets of music from best features to worst songs and everything in-between, based solely on what strikes us as diehard music fans first, and critics second. It's been an incredible year for hip-hop.

These are the biggest surprises of 2018.

THE CARTERS — EVERYTHING IS LOVE

Long awaited but never materialized, Beyoncé and JAY-Z finally (and quietly) released their joint album, EVERYTHING IS LOVE, on a Saturday afternoon in June. The perfect cap on the narrative arc beginning with Lemonade and continuing on 4:44, the album cements the Carters as America’s first couple, a joyous ode to their hard-earned love and a celebration of Black excellence. While it did not receive the same attention as both artist’s previous albums—for troubling reasonsEVERYTHING IS LOVE proves J and B are still each other's best collaborator. —Ben Taylor

What can I say? "Blueprint, found my J*gga who never cries / I'm so nice" is a fucking bar. Aunty 'Yonce rapping about dropping her daughter off at school every morning, giving her dresses that will be vintage pieces when she gets older, and promising "a lot of brown children on your Forbes list" is everything I never knew I needed. When Cardi B dropped "Money," I called the song mom raps for the club. EVERYTHING IS LOVE is mom raps for when I aggressively grocery shop and whip it in the Nissan on the way to therapy. I'm sure this all goes off in the club, too. —Donna-Claire Chesman

Playboi Carti — Die Lit

Going into my first listen of Die Lit, I was only expecting a couple tracks to strike me, perhaps a reincarnation of the smash hit Playboi Carti had given us the year before, “Magnolia.” In other words, I was not anticipating latching onto every single record. On top of Pi’erre Bourne’s sugary beats, Carti adheres unwaveringly to simple song structure, allowing him to construct an aura of minimalism that is downright infectious. Combine this with catchy ad-libs and stellar guest appearances (particularly Chief Keef on “Mileage”), and Die Lit solidifies itself as one of the most pleasant surprises of 2018. —Stephen Barston

Previously believing Playboi Carti to be too one-dimensional to hold my attention for the duration of an album, I was pleasantly surprised by Die Lit, which exceeded my admittedly low expectations by playing to Carti’s strengths and successfully hiding his limitations as a lyricist. Featuring some of my favorite production of the year, courtesy of maestro, Pi’erre Bourne, the beats on this album juxtapose playful melodies against strategic distortion and watery synths, creating a sound that other producers have been unsuccessfully trying to mimic all year. Overwhelmingly, Die Lit makes an excellent case for Carti as A$AP Rocky’s spiritual offspring, showcasing his vast ear for curation, as well as his ability to coast on his considerable charms as an emcee, despite a clear dearth of substance. —Hershal Pandya

Leikeli47 — Acrylic

Outside of a few songs occasionally popping up on an episode of HBO's Insecure, I was largely unfamiliar with Leikeli47 and her resume. Yet, her second studio album, Acrylic, released on November 14, turned out to be one of the most pleasurable and shocking listening experiences I had all year. There isn’t even a slightly dull moment throughout Acrylic, an almost impossible task considering it’s a 19-track album comprised only of Leikeli’s vocals and lyrics. Leikeli47's music is so expertly crafted and delivered it’s hard to believe she isn’t the biggest star in hip-hop. —Matt Wilhite

Meek Mill/Drake Reunion

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Meek Mill was arguably at the top of his game when Drake caused his empire to come crashing down around him. All it took was one little tweet. A handful of years and some drastic life events—including multiple prison sentences and a few financial project stalls—later, Meek and Drake reunited on the stage in Boston this past summer in a moment I never saw coming. Both dressed to the nines in garishly colored outfits egging each on other through the entirety of “Dreams and Nightmares” was an amazing thing to see, proof that perspective and time can heal even the deepest wounds. —Dylan "CineMasai" Green

Trouble — Edgewood

When Trouble took the stage at SXSW before Rae Sremmurd, I came away unimpressed. My first impression was yet another generic artist rapping over non-descript trap beats. One week later, I pressed play on his debut studio album, Edgewood, and it was an entirely different story. Trouble quickly won me over with his engaging delivery and uncanny ability to lay his verses perfectly in the pocket, and before long I had the album in heavy rotation. —Kenan Draughorne

The Rise of Kenny Beats

If you would’ve asked me at the start of the year which producer would dominate 2018, I would’ve guessed Metro, Murda, or Mike WiLL—the usual suspects. Instead, 2018 belongs to a Bill Burr lookalike from Connecticut. In January, Kenny Beats was down to his last $1,000 having quit his lucrative (but unfulfilling) gig as an EDM DJ to make another go of his rap dream. Fast forward to December and he stands as the breakout, if not the best, producer of the year. Kenny’s tireless work ethic has resulted in fully-produced projects with KEY! and Bay Area newcomer ALLBLACK, plus collaborations with Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs, Rico Nasty, 03 Greedo, J.I.D, and JPEGMAFIA. From summer onward, it felt like Kenny’s name was popping up on an important album every other week. While his sound may lack a recognizable signature (other than hearing “Woah, Kenny!” over a hard-hitting beat, of course), his versatile skill set and tailored-for-the-artist approach to beat-making allows him to get the best out of whoever he’s working with. That list of names will more than likely grow in size and stature in 2019, but only if Kenny fucks with you. —Andy James

Tay Keith & Kenny Beats’ Dual Domination

Metro Boomin’s 2018 hiatus left a window of opportunity for new prospects to enter the trap spectrum with a fresh, exciting sound able to reinvigorate the energy in a room with just their producer tag. Both Tay Keith and Kenny Beats stepped into the limelight. The two producers were void-fillers who arrived and flooded the calendar and our AirPods with an out-of-body knock that’s present on several of this year’s hottest singles and best albums. Keith and Kenny weren’t the only producers to have a noteworthy year, but the newfound recognition surrounding these two is telling of their impact in 12 short months. —Yoh

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