The 20 Best Rap Radio Hits of 2018

I've been doing year-end lists explicitly framed around terrestrial radio charts for years for a combination of different reasons. I still spend a lot of time in the car listening to the radio and experiencing popular music that way. But also, in the iTunes era and now in the streaming era, where the Hot 100 is increasingly clogged up with new songs by popular artists whether or not they turn out to be actually 'hits' that non-fans hear, I'm interested in looking more at the traditional singles marketplace and what thrives in the established radio formats. And in 2018, the divide got bigger than ever, and in a way you might not expect. Rap radio may have let some new artists like Cardi B and Lil Baby in the door, but by and large, the Soundcloud generation has been doing much better on streaming services than on the radio. This year, songs that charted in the top 10 of the Hot 100 by Juice WRLD, 6ix9ine, XXXTentacion and Lil Pump either did far better on pop radio than on rap radio, or just never really did that well on the radio at all. So that may make this list seem a little conservative and lacking in newer stars, which might be fair given my age and my tastes, but it's also a reflection of the emerging radio/streaming divide. 

Here's a Spotify playlist of these songs, and here are the previous iterations of this list that I've done for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017

1. Jay Rock f/ Kendrick Lamar, Future, and James Blake - "King's Dead" 
#13 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #21 Hot 100
Kendrick Lamar and Future are two of the greatest hip hop artists of this decade, but they certainly have different strengths and appeal to different people for different reasons (there was a famous incident at a 2015 radio festival when much of the crowd that enjoyed Future's set left before Kendrick's set). Still, I'm amused at how badly people seem to want to separate them or not enjoy both -- there was a lot of performative annoyance at the (very good) "Mask Off" remix with Kendrick, and some ridiculous hype that a Kendrick lyric about "styrofoams" was definitely a Future diss. So I'm happy that Future and Kendrick got together on a great song that boosted the profile of my favorite Kendrick labelmate, Jay Rock, although of course Future stole the spotlight with a hilarious love-it-or-hate-it sotto voce verse. 

2. Cardi B f/ Bad Bunny and J Balvin - "I Like It"
#3 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100 
The overwhelming majority of hit songs at any given time are chosen as singles by artists and their labels and presented to the public as such. And it used to take months for fan favorites to emerge from albums and occasionally become major hits. But in the streaming era, listener feedback is almost instantaneous, and when a high profile album drops, you can see within days or even within hours which song is taking off with the public. Some of the biggest rap songs of 2018 were album tracks that took an early lead in streaming figures: "In My Feelings," "Sicko Mode," "Uproar," and "I Like It." Cardi B had already shot the "I Like It" video before Invasion of Privacy was released, but that was no guarantee that the song would debut in the top 10 or soon go to #1. And though it's not a surprise to hear Latin artists cross over to pop radio actually delivering lyrics in Spanish after "Despacito," it was still kind of a new sensation to hear a song in heavy rotation on rap radio where 2 of the 3 verses were en Espanol. 

3. Lil Baby f/ Moneybagg Yo - "All Of A Sudden"
#29 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Lil Baby had the best breakthrough year of any rapper in 2018, and as usually happens these days, a Drake verse or two did a lot to help with that. But there is something about the Drake-based ra[ economy that kind of flattens everything in a way that bums me out. Early in the year, two of Lil Baby's 2017 mixtape tracks, "My Dawg" and "All Of A Sudden," did moderately well on airplay charts. But just as the latter, easily my favorite thing by both Lil Baby and Moneybagg Yo, was on the rise, Baby's Drake collaboration "Yes Indeed" came out, and "All Of A Sudden" dropped off the charts in a week or two. And listen, I'm really sick of "Yes Indeed," it's so short and boring with such a nothing beat, "All Of A Sudden" destroys it in every way except starpower. 

4. YG f/ 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Nicki Minaj - "Big Bank"
#6 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #16 Hot 100
Years of DJ Khaled singles and posse cuts like French Montana's "Pop That" have conditioned rap fans to expect a song with 4 or more major rappers to have a monstrous bombastic beat to support that kind of starpower. So DJ Mustard's almost obnoxiously dinky beat for "Big Bank" drew a lot of mixed reactions when it was first released, and it took a few months to grow on me, but ultimately it did. You know a posse cut turned out well when even Big Sean gets in a few great lines. 

5. Drake - "Nice For What" 
#1 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
I don't think of myself as a Drake hater so much as someone who doesn't think Drake is 5 times as good as every other rapper in a world where Drake gets played roughly 5 times as much as any of his contemporaries. So occasionally I get over my Drake fatigue and hear a song of his that I really enjoy, and I ask myself "is this as good as 'Stomach On Flat Flat'?" And this year I thought "Nice For What" was by far the standout of his historic 2018 hit parade. 

6. Migos - "Stir Fry"
#4 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #8 Hot 100
Pharrell's long resume of sonically varied hits with a diverse array of artists belies the fact that he's not actually an especially reactive collaborator -- it often seems like he just makes the beats he wants to make, sells them to whoever will take them, and lets the artist roll the dice on whether the track actually suits their sound. And I think people don't realize that because of how often it does work, like when Pharrell gave a beat he made in 2008 to Migos nearly a decade later, which wound up sounding like a breath of fresh air in the context of the homogeneous contemporary trap sound of Culture II

7. Derez De'Shon "Hardaway"
#11 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #61 Hot 100 
London On Da Track has been one of my favorite producers since he made a lot of Young Thug's early hits back in 2014, and 2018 was his best year since then as he notched radio staples with Kodak Black, French Montana, Jacquees, and a great breakthrough hit for Derez De'Shon. 

8. Rae Sremmurd f/ Juicy J - "Powerglide"
#14 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #28 Hot 100 
"Powerglide" came at the tail end of a wave of hit Three 6 Mafia samples and interpolation, but it was a welcome addition to the trend. I just wish radio stations actually played the Juicy J verse, it would've made more sense to edit out one of Swae Lee's 2 verses to keep the song under 5 minutes. 

9. Lil Wayne - "Uproar" 
#8 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #7 Hot 100
I kind of dismissed "Uproar" in my first impression Carter V review, and I still think it's kind of funny that Lil Wayne's comeback hit trades on NYC nostalgia while Drake was topping the charts with New Orleans bounce homages. But this song grew on me a lot, there are some classic mixtape Weezy moments where he's just word drunk and stringing together these brilliantly evocative strings of imagery like it's nothing. 

10. Yella Beezy - "That's On Me" 
#7 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #57 Hot 100
At a time when it feels like a lot of new rappers are household names before radio catches up and starts playing them, it's genuinely surprising to hear somebody in heavy rotation before you know anything about them beyond that song. But Dallas rapper Yella Beezy managed to dominate radio before anyone knew anything about him or he had broken into 8-figure numbers on streaming services, to the point that it became the media angle about him. I'm surprised that people are still using that squeaky siren sound from "Fuck Up Some Commas" on rap hits 3-4 years later, I thought it was really the kind of sound that was only worth using once. 

11. Flipp Dinero - "Leave Me Alone"
#14 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #27 Hot 100

Flipp Dinero is another new artist who bucked the trend of getting an internet buzz before a radio hit. In fact I made a point or writing about this song the other day without learning anything about him. But I just looked him up and he's from Brooklyn, which I wouldn't necessarily have guessed, so that's interesting. 

12. Travis Scott f/ Drake - "Sicko Mode" 
#2 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100 
It wasn't surprising that the Drake feature took the early lead in streams from Travis Scott's highly anticipated Astroworld. But the song, which features 3 distinct sections and runs 5 minutes 13 seconds (much like Paul McCartney's "Band On The Run," which turned 45 the week "Sicko Mode" hit #1), doesn't sound much like a radio song. In fact, it sounds like Travis Scott did 2 sessions with Drake that resulted in unfinished songs, and when it was time to finish the album he just threw them together with a 3rd song fragment. But "Sicko Mode" is a smash despite abandoning a standard verse/chorus format, which might prove something, but probably just that people love Drake even more than they love traditional song structures. 

13. Offset and Metro Boomin - "Ric Flair Drip"
#22 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #13 Hot 100  
Hi-hat programming in hip-hop started to become competitively intricate 20 years ago when Timbaland changed the game, and at the dawn of this decade Lex Luger brought about the now ubiquitous pointillism of thousands of trilling 32nd note hi-hats blitzing over every beat. So hearing a simple steady ticking 8th note hi-hat pattern on a hit rap song actually stands out now, as it did on the wonderfully 21 Savage-free hit from Offset's album with 21 Savage. And the combination of Offset and these kind of back-to-basics hi-hats seemed to become a trend in 2018 with the success of Tyga's "Taste" and Kodak Black's "Zeze." 

14. Rich The Kid f/ Kendrick Lamar - "New Freezer"
#4 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #41 Hot 100 
I love the way Kendrick darts around this beat, first trying out the halting start-stop cadence of RIch The Kid's hook, then adding little asides in the open spaces, and then kind of circling about it with playful triplets. A lot of his best verses feel like Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower" solo, these little distinct movements that he threads together seamlessly. 

15. Lil Baby & Gunna - "Drip Too Hard"
#11 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #4 Hot 100
It was truly strange this year to watch two of Young Thug's most derivative proteges come into their own and join forces for a duo project that had a better first week than any release in Thug's entire career. But Drip Harder just came along at the right moment to capitalize on the momentum of both Baby and Gunna, and help push them up to a bigger level, and this is the song that really captures their chemistry best. 

16. Cardi B f/ 21 Savage - "Bartier Cardi"
#3 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #14 Hot 100 
The release of "Bartier Cardi" was just about the only time in the last 18 months that Cardi B didn't seem unstoppable, that it felt like maybe she'd just keep releasing lesser versions of "Bodak Yellow" and quickly fizzle out. But once that didn't happen, I came around to really enjoying "Bartier Cardi" for what it is, that third verse is mean. 

17. Meek Mill f/ Jeremih and PNB Rock - "Dangerous"
#3 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #48 Hot 100
A half decade ago, MMG ran rap radio with Rick Ross and Wale's plush R&B singles while Meek Mill was mostly sticking with the kind of hard, amped up songs that made him famous. And if you'd told me then that eventually Meek would be scoring more melodic midtempo hits than any of his labelmates, I wouldn't have believed you. But what's really surprising is how well he's integrated these kinds of songs into his sound and found a way to flow on them that doesn't sound like a Ja Rule sensitive thug thing. 

18. The Carters - "Apeshit" 
#4 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #13 Hot 100
Everything Is Love kind felt more like a tour EP than the event album I would've assumed rap's royal couple's long-rumored album would be. But I appreciate that the album and particularly its single wound up mostly as a showcase for the fact that Beyonce can flow as well as her husband these days. 

19. Ball Greezy f/ Lil Dred - "Nice & Slow"
#27 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Amidst all the veterans and A-listers and insurgent new stars, it's always nice to see a perennial regional also-ran like Miami's Ball Greezy have a good year, with this sleeper solo hit as well as his appearance on that weird giant hit by standup comic Lil Duval. 

20. Kendrick Lamar and SZA "All The Stars"
#13 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #7 Hot 100
Between TDE's Black Panther soundtrack, Future's Super Fly soundtrack, and Mike WiLL's Creed II soundtrack, 2018 really felt like the year that hip hop and mainstream black film lined up their blockbuster projects together for some really cool musical moments. And "All The Stars" really refreshed me as kind of a more ethereal, cinematic rap soundtrack single than the kind of bombastic template of Kanye and Eminem songs you always hear in trailers. 

The 10 Worst Rap Radio Hits of 2018: 
1. Childish Gambino - "This Is America"
2. Blac Youngsta - "Booty"
3. Sheck Wes - "Mo Bamba" 
4. Tyga f/ Offset - "Taste" 
5. Drake - "Nonstop" 
6. Kanye West and Lil Pump - "I Love It" 
7. Lil Dicky f/ Chris Brown - "Freaky Friday"
8. 6ix9ine f/ Nicki Minaj - "Fefe" 
9. Nicki Minaj - "Chun-Li" 
10. Juice WRLD - "Lucid Dreams"  
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