The final year of the decade felt like a mixed bag within hip hop. Major rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and Drake took a break, while newcomers DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion shined throughout the seasons. Elsewhere, the UK rap scene continued making waves to provide polished projects with clear staying power into the next decade. Across all genres, here are the best albums of 2019.
20. Sabrina Claudio, Truth Is
After a duo of beautiful mixtapes, Sabrina Claudio continues her formula of gentle yet silky R&B. Her voice evokes chills across Truth Is, never failing to create a seductive sound. While it may serve as excellent “background music”, there are also gems to take away for individual listen in tracks like “Rumours”, “Me In Her” and “Holding the Gun”. Claudio continues to bubble in the underground, but listeners should definitely be tuning in by now.
Favourite tracks: “Holding the Gun”, “Me In Her”, “Rumours”, “I Don’t Mean To”
19. Blade Brown, Bags and Boxes 4
Let me just get this out the way before we really get into the list: there are a lot of UK rap albums on this year’s list. For the first time ever there are more UK rap albums than US on the year-end lists, and that says it all. British trap rapper Blade Brown returned to the music scene with the fourth installment in his iconic Bags and Boxes series. Brown proves the UK can match the US when it comes to trap rap, delivering addictive songs like “Joints”, “Triple Threat”, “12 Summers”, and may more.
Favourite tracks: “Triple Threat”, “Joints”, “Progression”, “12 Summers”
18. Roddy Ricch, Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial
After writing off Roddy Ricch ever since his breakout hit “Die Young”, he somehow manages to impress on his debut album. Yes, Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial borrows the blueprint of your typical Meek Mill album (just listen to the “Intro” for starters), but Roddy’s voice and additional flavours make it a classy take on the street rap style. Whether its the addictive “eee errr” of “The Box” or the quotables of “Bacc Seat” (“She want Celine / She want the Gucci”), Roddy exceeds expectations splendidly.
Favourite tracks: “Gods Eyes”, “Big Stepper”, “The Box”, “Perfect Time”, “War Baby”, “Prayers to the Trap God”
17. Denzel Curry, ZUU
A short, sweet and punchy tribute to Carol City, Florida. Denzel Curry’s Zuu came only ten months after the acclaimed TA1300, but impresses on similar levels. It is a great album to put on for a half-hour cruise of hard beats, impressive bars and comical skits. Curry’s personality shines over the production and ensures there isn’t a dull moment for even a second.
Favourite tracks: “RICKY”, “ZUU”, “WISH”, “SPEEDBOAT”, “P.A.T.”
16. Youngs Teflon, Blood, Swvgg & Tears
UK rap veteran Youngs Teflon released an album that’ll rank highly in his extensive discography. Blood, Swvgg & Tears dropped in three-stage EPs, and even though the aforementioned Curry done this earlier in 2018 it was a unique rollout to see in the UK Scene. Blood, Swvgg & Tears touches all of Teflon’s styles, whether that be traditional hip hop, drill or trap. There is storytelling, bangers and tracks for a late-night drive. It defines what an album should really be.
Favourite tracks: “Lambeth”, “Hustlin”, “Street Life”, “Clout”, “Broken Safety”, “Aaliyah”
15. M Huncho, Utopia
UK trap crooner M Huncho shows off his unique vocal inflexions on his Utopia mixtape. For those unfamiliar with his work, M Huncho blends sung melodies with eligible rapping, two skills that rarely go hand-in-hand these days. His laidback production creates wonders like “Tranquility” and “Broken Bottles” with choruses that cannot be ignored. Utopia is a must-listen for anyone interested in artists that balance the best of both worlds.
Favourite tracks: “Birds” ,”Ocho Cinco, “Tranquility”, “Rock Bottom”, “Broken Bottles”
14. Little Simz, GREY Area
UK rapper and actor Little Simz stole critics’ hearts this year with her third studio album. Grey Area is empowering in its exuberant production, Simz’ lyrical performances and cohesiveness. Ensuring a fun listen can be difficult when getting personal but Grey Area straddles the line with ease. There is transparency and clarity in Simz’ bars (“I’m a thrift store kid, real fly n***a”), oozing confidence from start to finish.
Favourite tracks: “Venom”, “Therapy”, “Boss”, “Pressure”, “Selfish”
13. Jme, Grime MC
On Grime MC, Jme (brother of Skepta for those that don’t know) refuses to conform to modern conventions. The MC (he refuses to be called a rapper) returns from his four-year break through strictly a physical release. And yet he still managed to chart in the top thirty of the UK Album Chart. In fact, Grime MC may be Jme’s strongest album to date, churning out authentic grime songs that erase the novelty of Jme’s older work.
Favourite tracks: “Badman Walking Through”, “You Watch Me”, “Nang”, “96 Bars of My Life”, “Live”, “Issmad”
12. Various Artists, Top Boy: Soundtrack
One of the greatest TV seasons of the year also came with a stellar soundtrack. Featuring some of the finest artists from the UK (Dave, Fredo, Little Simz), the Top Boy soundtrack is a perfect representation of music in the country. Ironically, the worst song on the album is Drake’s drill-inspired “Behind Barz”, which emphasises the level of talents at play here.
Favourite tracks: “8 Missed Calls”, “Professor X”, “Overseer”, “100 Thoughts”, “One Summer”, “Venom”
11. Headie One, Music x Road
Drill rapper Headie One makes hits for fun. Music x Road fines the perfect balance between drill and commercial rap to make drill accessible to a wider audience. That comes in form of songs like “All Day”, “18Hunna” and “Kettle Water”. It’s not all your usual drill over here; Headie One shows artistic evolution all over the project (“Music x Road”, “Both”, “Chanel”). The sounds are mature and polished but inherit Headie One’s one-of-a-kind charisma
Favourite tracks: “18Hunna”, “All Day”, “Chanel”, “Both”, “Back to Basics”
10. Snoh Aalegra, Ugh, Those Feels Again
Classy R&B comes far and few these days. It’s lucky that we got Snoh Aalegra to do the job. Ugh, Those Feels Again is a silky, lovey-dovey experience, tender in tone and magnificent in mood. The rich production is ever-smooth to help Aalegra in doubling down her memorable voice. It may sound generic and forgettable on first time, but when it clicks it really does resonate.
Favourite tracks: “You”, “Charleville 9200, Pt. II”, “Love Like That”, “Toronto”
9. K-Trap, No Magic
The eighth UK project on this list is another example of how stellar the British rap scene was in 2019. Just like Headie One, drill rapper K-Trap shows signs of evolution from the drill sound that often leads to one-dimensional albums. Fresh off retiring his famous mask, No Magic is an 11-track, no nonsense showcase of versatility. K-Trap shows his knack for hitmaking (“Big Mood”), making catchy drill tracks (“No Mask”, “No Caller”) and slowing down the tempo (“Change”, “Again”). Without a single weak track on the mixtape, No Magic shows just how to make a versatile trap project.
Favourite tracks: “Big Mood”, “Mask Off”, “No Mask”, “Change”, “Different”, “Stay Safe”
8. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell
Lana Del Rey started the decade in arguably an immature fashion. Now six solo albums in, she has crafted what is her best body of work. Norman Fucking Rockwell maintains the blue-jeans aesthetic that Lana’s music has always carried, but builds on it by evolving her artistry. Whether it is the songwriting, lyricism or song structure, the American singer improves on all fronts. There is a focus on pop rock ballads, namely the spectacular 10-minute “Venice Bitch” (which would have made my Best Songs of 2019 list if it wasn’t released as a single in 2018). The minimal beauty of tracks like “Happiness is a Butterfly” and “Hope is a Dangerous Thing” elegantly captures a unique allure that only Lana possesses.
Favourite tracks: “Venice Bitch”, “Happiness is a Butterfly”, “Cinnamon Girl”, “California”, “Hope is a Dangerous Thing”
7. Slowthai, Nothing Great About Britain
Nothing Great About Britain is an abrasive, no-fucks-given debut by Britain’s most daring MC. Slowthai dares to creatively provoke through a brash denouncement of British patriotism and a three-cheers for the working class. Slowthai and his novelty also stems from the roots of the production. Songs like “Grow Up” and “North Nights” possess an eerie minimalism, like a soundtrack to a Saw movie, nocturnal and foreboding. The album’s additional influences of punk and early 2000s UK rap adds to the authenticity of Slowthai representing true Britain. What is great about Britain, according to Slowthai, is the simple things. What the working class create, and not what the wealthy leach off. Slowthai is one of a kind, crafting music with unique artistry while bravely sending a message to the blockheads in Parliament. Slowthai, is what is great about Britain.
Favourite tracks:“T N Biscuits”, “Northampton’s Child”, “Nothing Great About Britain”, “Grow Up”, “Rainbow”, “North Nights”, “Inglorious”
6. Kano, Hoodies All Summer
Attentive artists know what their best songs are. In UK rap legend Kano’s case, he is able to paint his picture in a mere 10 tracks. Hoodies All Summer is socially-conscious in the most subtle of ways, ways in which that could easily go over the head. Narratives of knife crime and police brutality conjure a compelling narrative to become an imaginative soundtrack to anti-establishment. Hoodies All Summer sees the world through grown lens, a harsh reality that is a bitter pill to swallow.
Favourite tracks: “Class of Deja”, “Can’t Hold We Down”, “Free Years Later”, “Pan-Fried”, “Good Youtes Walk Amongst Evil”, “Trouble”
5. Polo G, Die a Legend
If we’re talking Rookie of the Year award, DaBaby must step aside and make room for Chicago’s Polo G. No gimmicks are present in Polo G’s debut album, Die a Legend. Authentic, unfiltered rapping is woven over starry-eyed trap beats, given the ribbon on top by the captivating hooks. From the opening track “Lost Files” the intent of Polo G is immediately clear; these tales of struggles will be told expertly. Polo G’s rapping impresses across an all-killer no filler album. The tone is reflective, and even haunting at times. These are features that would resonate even more in years to come. If Polo G wishes to leave a legacy, he is off to a great start.
Favourite tracks: “Pop Out”, “Lost Files”, “Last Strike”, “Dyin Breed”, “A King’s Nightmare”, “Chosen 1”
4. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Bandana
The promised MadGibbs sequel maintains rap excellence. While Piñata was dark and intense, Bandana is its smooth counterpart. Madlib’s beats are oil paintings that Gibbs writes the captions for. Gibbs’ bars continue to be relentless, except this time Madlib administers a nonchalant backdrop to the tales. Several tracks occupy that realm, taking listeners to an Italian beach living the retired life rather than the drug-dealing corner spot (“Gat Damn”, “Soul Right”). The sparkling “Crime Pays” sees the best marriage of Madlib’s beats and Gibbs’ bars, Freddie gradually adding bricks to the foundation of his flow through impeccable cadence. There’s the contrast of Gibbs’ husky voice to Madlib’s soulful beats that feels like it can never get old. It is a formula that continues to evolve, resulting in a brilliant hip hop album from the fraternal twins of rap.
Favourite tracks: “Flat Tummy Tea”, “Crime Pays”, “Giannis”, “Fake Names”, “Half Manne Half Cocaine”, “Cataracts”, “Palmolive”, “Education”
3. FKA Twigs, Magdalene
If Magdalene was a material, it would be glass. Fragile and transparent. FKA Twigs bears her soul on her comeback record, a striking showcase of experimental minimalism and angelic vocals. The nine songs feel fragmented, like shattered shards that capture different emotional states of a woman who underwent surgery to remove fibroid tumours and a public breakup. Twigs’ voice is the selling point, channelling the emotion beautifully on songs like “Sad Day”, “Thousand Eyes” and “Cellophane”. There’s a haunting sense of loneliness on “Mirrored Heart” and the feeling of being dead inside on the robotic verses of “Home With You”.
Magdalene defines the meaning of artistry. It is tragic enough to pull on the heartstrings and resonate with Twigs’ feelings while also being insanely memorable. If Magdalene is an accurate depiction of FKA Twigs’ emotional state, one would hope she’ll be able to put the pieces back together sooner rather than later.
Favourite tracks: “Sad Day”, “Holy Terrain”, “Home With You”, “Mary Magdalene”, “Cellophane”, “Thousand Eyes”, “Fallen Alien”
2. Dave, Psychodrama
Innovative and candid, the South London rapper crafts the most breathtaking debut of his generation. Woven expertly in its 51 minutes, Psychodrama earns instant access to the echelon of UK rap albums. Psychodrama is an unprecedented remedy for both Dave and UK rap. Rarely has a conceptual approach been applied by a British rapper, let alone executed in the manner Psychodrama achieves.
Far from a collection of songs, Psychodrama is a musical therapy session. The album conceptualises tracks as responses to a psychotherapist, encouraging Dave to open up about his traumas. The concept is both a metaphor for music being Dave’s therapy and a reflection of the therapy taken by the rapper’s incarcerated brother, the latter being a recurring theme throughout the album up to its final track. On his way to recovery, Dave reflects on his surroundings (“Streatham”, “Environment”), relationships (“Purple Heart”, “Location”) and racial identity (“Black”). There is precision to the concept, an approach unattempted by a UK rap album in recent memory.
In a scene thriving off commercial singles, Psychodrama oozes the fundamentals of rap. The wordplay, storytelling and lowkey production are the links for the stainless execution of a gripping concept. Psychodrama bravely demands attention, reserving an honorary spot as one of the best British rap albums of the decade.
Favourite tracks: “Streatham”, “Psycho”, “Screwface Capital”, “Disaster”, “Environment”, “Drama”, “Lesley”, “Black”
1. James Blake, Assume Form
In January came an album that caught my attention. It’s an album I would have never guessed would land number 1 on my Best Albums of 2019. But sometimes it is the most unexpected projects that end up resonating the most. English singer and producer James Blake crafts a stunning album that unlocks a new chapter in his artistic journey, one that is so gorgeous that it may be one of my favourite albums of all-time now.
Through the newfound inspiration from his collaborators and his own personal life, James Blake composes twelve gorgeous odes of romantic alt-pop to surely secure itself as one of the best releases of 2019. Assume Form thrives off the potion of pure infatuation. Blending gentle vocals with minimalist production results in some of the most chilling songs Blake has ever released. Riveting musical atmospheres are composed on songs like “Mile High”, blending genres so expertly that they become something totally new. For more songs than not, Blake translates his infatuation to the listener so they feel what he feels.
“Into the Red” leaves the listener in a trance, assuming the form of an Eastern lullaby that personifies love. Blake and Spanish singer Rosalía combine on “Barefoot in the Park” to create a graceful duet. Less is more when all the song needs is captivating vocals and a stable metaphor. “Power On” transports the listener to a depth of hypnosis, the type that one would feel when under the control of “love”. “Don’t Miss It” is a chilling confession of depression and anxiety, most notably professing escapism from the outside world (“I could switch off whenever I like / I could sleep whenever I like / I could leave in the middle of the night”). The track is haunting, functioning best as a musical monologue than a traditional hook-and-verse song.
In 48 minutes, James Blake leaves nothing left to be desired. Each track is painted with a stroke of genius, enchanting the listener without a misstep. Whether it is the songwriting or minimalist production, Blake faultlessly expresses gratitude for his vulnerability, and appreciation for being taken out of a dark place. It may be January, but Assume Form will most certainly qualify as the greatest display of musical artistry of 2019, and perhaps the decade. After years of his melancholic aesthetic, James Blake has finally reached his final form.
Favourite tracks: “Into the Red”, “Power On”, “Don’t Miss It”, “Barefoot in the Park”, “Mile High”, “Are You In Love?”, “Tell Them”, “Where’s the Catch?”