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We’ve come to the end of another Grammy season, it’s always natural that we start looking back at the songs that made 2018 a, well, bearable year with fresh ears. Although the Grammy Awards have historically had a complicated relationship with hip-hop, this year, the pop categories were almost dominated by the genre. Most notably, Childish Gambino won Music Video, Record, and Song of the Year for “This Is America,” as well as Best Rap/Sung Performance.
Still though, hip-hop’s stalwart and creatively boundless heroes, the beat producers who get our butts on the dance floor and our hearts to tug on our tear ducts, don’t always get the same amount of love. While rap beats sit just beneath the surface of a great vocal performance, they’re often the foundational source of the energy that creates that performance. Some beats push an artist outside of their comfort zone; some are hyper-rewarding for fans; some serve to create dissonance with the emotion of the song, giving it ambiguity and depth.
Let’s look back at the top rap beats of the 2018 and discuss a bit about what makes them so darn good.
If you’re longing to enhance your own skills as a hip-hop beat producer, I teach a new online course on hip-hop production here at Soundfly called The Art of Hip-Hop Production. Check it out now and preview a full lesson for free! For now, you can check out each of the following tracks individually below, or groove along with our Spotify playlist here (onto which I’ve added a bunch more beats worth revisiting). Enjoy!
10. Jay Rock — “WIN”
Produced by Boi-1da & CT
With the release of his third album, Redemption, Jay Rock found a level of success in 2018 that was long overdue. From performing at the BET Awards, to being featured on the acclaimed soundtrack to Black Panther, Jay Rock took a strong leap from TDE’s metaphorical center to a star player.
“WIN” is kind of a goofy masterpiece. The track features a sample of The Utah Symphony Orchestra performing a campy, horn-driven country tune, “Rooster and Runaway,” with Kendrick Lamar poking in every now and then with hilarious little ad libs. And the video is also quite funny.
Boi-1da is responsible for this banger, with help from CT and Vinylz. As you can imagine, the sampled horns are slowed down and chopped up to fit inside his trap beat structure. Horns typically appear in a beat to establish an excited, triumphant vibe (à la Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”), but here they’re presented in a kind of mellow form. They just chug along awkwardly like a railroad car, offering little to no energy for the vocals to ride along. That’s why the trap beat is so covertly important here — it provides most of the forward momentum the song needs.
9. Mac Miller — “Perfecto” / “Self Care”
Produced by Tee-WaTT
In 2018, the world lost an amazing talent in Mac Miller. His last record, Swimming Pools, sees all of his creative titles (rapper, vocalist, producer, multi-instrumentalist) coming into full bloom. He’s heard singing more than on previous projects, and he produces and plays a lot of the instruments himself, as well. Compositionally, the tracks on this record ebb and flow between different feels, and Miller finds a new command of his voice in danceable funk anthems like “What’s the Use” and on more introspective cuts like “Self Care” and “Perfecto.”
Frequent Aminé producer Tee Watt and film score composer Jon Brion, who is well known for scoring films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Heart Huckabees, help to give “Perfecto” its cinematic bounce. We’ll talk about “Self Care” in a moment, but what connects the two tracks is that they both make use of the II- V I chord progression (or turnaround), as well as altered dominant chords which are very popular in jazz music.
The main chord progression in “Perfecto” is that II- V I progression in the key of B♭ minor. But instead of returning immediately to B♭ minor, the progression lands on its relative major, D♭. On the second half of “Self Care,” we hear what sounds like E♭min7 going to A♭7, then Fmin7 going to B♭7. And the producers use the relative major again, substituting G♭major here for E♭minor, which makes this progression sound slightly more uplifting than your average II- V chord sequence.
Producers DJ Dahi, ID Labs, Nice Rec, and Nostxlgic team up on “Self Care” to give this track the bounce of a modern trap beat fused with harmonies taken straight out of nu-jazz. Miller being a big fan of jazz, it’s not surprising that a lot of the songs on this record feature mysterious, complex harmonies.
8. Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin — “I Like It”
Produced by Craig Kallman, Tainy, Invincible & J. White Did It
In 2018, Cardi B proved she was more than just a one-hit wonder. After the success of “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, which, by the way, was the first single from a female emcee (with no featured artist) to land at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 20 years, Cardi continued to dominate. She entered 2018 with three songs in the Top 10, snagged a Grammy win for best rap album, and then found herself at #1 on the charts again for her feature on Bruno Mars’ hit, “Finesse (Remix).”
Her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, then broke a new streaming record for Apple Music as the most streamed album by a female artist in one week (over 100 million). “I Like It” features the two modern kings of latin hip-hop, J Balvin and Bad Bunny, and samples the classic salsa cut “I Like It Like That” by Bronx legend Pete Rodriguez. As with hip-hop, salsa is another Bronx creation that has gained international acclaim, and Cardi shows she knows her music history and heritage very well.
The production team of J. White Did It, Invincible, Tainy, and Craig Kallman transformed this salsa hit into a trap banger that is equally as infectious as the original — just like P. Diddy, they flipped a hit into another hit. If you got the budget to clear major samples, you better have the confidence and talent to turn it into more bucks, “Okurrrrr?”
7. J. Cole — “ATM”
Produced by Deputy & J. Cole
Ahmad Jamal samples in hip-hop are always golden. There’s a long history of artists sampling the jazz legend, from Nas to De La Soul. With “ATM,” J. Cole adds his name to this great expanding list by flipping Jamal’s recording of “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” (the sample appears 37 seconds into the song) into a veritable club banger.
On his fifth studio album, KOD, Cole finds himself tackling the subjects of addiction and substance abuse which have been popularized in modern hip-hop by the new generations of SoundCloud and mumble rappers. As if to create a sort of subliminal parody, Cole produces a trap banger that takes all the elements of modern mumble rap (triplet flow, repetitive hooks, rapid fire drum patterns) and infuses his lyrics with the paradoxes of mainstream consumer culture. The chorus echoes the “get money” sentiment that has been a stable in hip-hop since the late ’90s, but then presents the catch:
“Can’t take it when you gone but you can’t live without it.”
Cole is known for producing many of his own songs, and for being very hands-on, which has drawn some criticism in the past. But on “ATM,” I believe Cole has finally hit his stride as a dual-threat rapper and producer. The beat has all the bounce of a modern trap song but with a harmonic environment that is reminiscent of the types of samples commonly found in the golden era of hip-hop. If anything, the track speaks to Cole’s feeling of being torn between two generations — the old school and new school — both in lyric and form. “ATM” is Cole’s highest charting single to date; the record debuted at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was subsequently used for a commercial for the NBA playoffs.
6. Anderson .Paak — “Bubblin’”
Produced by AntMan Wonder & Jahlil Beats
2018 was a landmark year for Anderson .Paak. It has been interesting to witness his evolution since being discovered by Dr. Dre and joining the Aftermath label. Paak’s gospel-tinged vocals and everyman style of rap is probably a large reason why people have fallen for music. On “Bubblin’,” Paak takes a well-deserved victory lap to celebrate his success.
The track was produced by Jahlil Beats and Antman Wonder and features looped percussion, lush strings, staccato brass, and a James Bond-inspired bass line, with various vocal samples that weave in and out before the verse starts. Those familiar with Paak’s acoustic drum sound may be surprised to hear him rapping over 808s and a more trap style drum pattern, but all the same, “Bubblin’” showcases his versatility as an artist who is not afraid to step out of his box and expand his sonic playground.
What makes this beat bounce is the interplay between the horns and strings. They give the beat a cinematic feeling as if this were the theme music for an old spy movie. The drums (especially the 808s) make the track contemporary but compliment the nostalgic vibe of the samples perfectly.
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5. Pusha T — “If You Know You Know”
Produced by Kanye West
DAYTONA may go down in history as a hip-hop classic for a few reasons, but, in my opinion, what makes it classic is that it represents a return to the roots of rap album-making. It’s sometimes hard to remember that rap albums used to be realized by a single producer. Back in the early days of hip-hop, the DJs ruled the landscape, and the emcees were just up there to hype the crowd up and get them dancing. It’s not that Pusha T’s raps aren’t great on DAYTONA, or that Kanye West steals the show here, it’s the fluid interplay between them that makes this album great — and the fact that their collaboration doesn’t end when the track ends.
As a featured artist on West’s Good Music label, Pusha T has always delivered. However, here on “If You Know You Know,” Pusha comes out of the gate rapping better than he has in years. With nothing more than a sparse sample looping behind him, Pusha paints a vivid picture of the dichotomy between the rules of upper echelon society and the codes and complexities of a drug dealing lifestyle. The track samples “Twelve O’Clock Satanial” by an obscure hard rock band from the 1970s called Air (no, not that Air). This once again proves how deep West digs in his crates for samples. West flips a snippet of the song into a bass-heavy banger reminiscent of West’s production on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
4. Drake — “Diplomatic Immunity”
Produced by Nick Brongers & Boi-1da
Drake had a very, very productive 2018. From the surprise reveal that he had become a father, to his very public beef with Pusha T, to a string of great features, and… oh yeah, Scorpion basically showing up to the Billboard Hot 100 with a sleeping bag and pillow and camping out for what seemed like the entire year, it’s been hard to ignore his presence.
On “Diplomatic Immunity,” Drake takes an introspective look at his last year via colorful metaphors and sobering realities. But what makes this track work is its sheer simplicity. Producer Boi-1da states in his Genius Deconstructed interview that he intentionally left a lot of space in the mix to give the artist more room to work with. He understood the type of reaction Drake would have to this beat and what type of song that might develop.
The track features an orchestral sample by Nick Brongers, who actually composes original music specifically designed to be sampled. The two have collaborated before on one of Drake’s early tracks, “Over.” Here, Boi-1da changed the pitch of the original sample in order to make it sound darker. He was able to achieve this effect by transposing the sample down one semitone, or half-step. He then added some very simple drums and a fat synth bass line that he played on his laptop keyboard (see, you don’t need all that fancy equipment to make great beats). And speaking of which, you gotta check out Boi-1da’s new sample pack on Splice Sounds.
3. Sjava, Mozzy & Reason — “Seasons” (Black Panther OST)
Produced by Sounwave, Kendrick Lamar & Frank Dukes
With all the hype and pandemonium around Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, as well as Ludwig Göransson’s score, it’s easy to forget that Kendrick Lamar curated an amazing soundtrack for the movie. Stepping mainly into the producer roll, Lamar is only featured as a rapper on six of the fourteen tracks on the album. On “Seasons,” Lamar’s longtime collaborator Sounwave creates a mellow backdrop for Mozzy, Sjava, and TDE newcomer Reason to weave a poignant tale of the obstacles they faced while growing up in challenging environments.
Sjava’s beautiful singing in the Xhosa language compliments the themes of the movie so well that it’s a shame this didn’t appear on the screen. I’ve seen Black Panther over 20 times at this point, and listened to the soundtrack at least that many times, and I believe this song has the strongest thematic relevance to the film. One of the central themes of the film is the colliding of African and American values through the lived reality lens of the African American — and this musical collaboration mirrors that justly. Lamar also contributes background vocals to the song, and assisted in its production.
2. Saba ft. theMIND — “BUSY/SIRENS”
Produced by DaedaePIVOT, Daoud & Saba
Chicago rapper Saba is a unique voice in a city full of amazing artists like Chance the Rapper and Noname, just to “name” a few. Although he’s been releasing music steadily since 2014, his debut full length album, Care for Me, is a mature work of art by an artist struggling to find his place amidst newfound success and the scars of his past. As far as album intros go, this one might just be my favorite in a long time.
“BUSY/SIRENS” sets the tone for the rest of the album, both sonically and lyrically. It was produced by Saba and his cousin DaedaePIVOT, and features a mash up of two songs. Both sides speak on themes that seem very personal to the artist, yet are also universal: his feelings of depression while trying to navigate his life, socially; and his prevalent dread and vulnerability as a result of being a black man in Chicago, and an inevitable target of police brutality.
Lush guitar chords are consistent throughout “BUSY,” but halfway through the verse, the texture changes as a pad comes in with reversed chords. The chorus is enhanced by a bass line that can only be described as silky. And it is production tricks like this that make this track such a great example of how to use different textures to create ambiance. Vocals from theMIND send “BUSY” to an ethereal space as the song transitions into “SIRENS” with the addition of a gliding synth pad and 808s to replace the guitar and bass of the previous song. If you’ve never heard Saba’s magic before, this is an incredible introduction to his artsy and slightly melancholic, yet head-bopping sound.
1. Travis Scott ft. Drake — “Sicko Mode”
Produced by Rogét Chahayed, CuBeatz, OZ, Hit-Boy & Tay Keith
Travis Scott’s long-awaited follow up to 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight finds the artist in a more experimental mood, as he weaves sonic tapestries to back up his drug-infused parables. 2018’s Astroworld calls on a talented casts of producers and artists to help Scott create an album partially dedicated to the Houston amusement park Scott frequented as a kid. And on “Sicko Mode,” he enlists the help of a beat-production all-star team consisting of Hit Boy, Tay Keith, Cuebeats, and Oz (with additional support from Mike Dean and keyboardist extraordinaire Rogét Chahayed) to craft the track’s four different beats!
It’s a sonic roller coaster, and we can’t get off. From the opening organ chords and Drake’s 30-second feature that abruptly switches into a new beat, it’s immediately apparent that Scott wants to take the listener on a strange and wonderful voyage. Drake returns at the end to bookend the tale over Tay Keith’s minimal trap beat. Keith was also responsible for two more Drake-related hits in 2018, “Nonstop” and “Look Alive.” His beat here makes use of a dark piano sound that makes Drake almost come close to sounding tough.
But what really makes the production in “Sicko Mode” so great is that no section here feels unnecessary or random. Every time the beat switches, the song continues to grow and expand in unexpected ways, it doesn’t feel meandering. The triplet bounce of the intro is echoed in the hi-hat pattern of the second beat; the warped synth bass line over Scott’s verse sounds like it was sampled from a dubstep track, while the minimal piano keeps leading that ominous vibe into the deconstructed wash of drums at the end of Scott’s verse. It definitely helps us picture some warped and scary hall of mirrors in an old amusement park — everything’s flowing in the same direction, but it doesn’t really follow a straight path to get there. “Sicko Mode” takes the cake.
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