Despite the intertwined stories behind the making of Scorpion and what would eventually come of G.O.O.D. Music's Wyoming sessions album series, Drake’s double-sided, 25-track mosaic of grief, scorn, and blissful sass, and Kanye’s West’s batch of (mostly) seven-song executions presented listeners with two divergent paths.
To the right, a sprawling expressway built for the OVO faithful. To the left, a more narrow road, paved with imperfect yet thoughtful intentions.
For the past few years, and probably more if hard-pressed to examine the classics, the culture’s favorite albums have frequently landed between 10 and 14 tracks—Lemonade, 4:44, DAMN., etc. With the bar for what we deem decent music as low as the bar for whom we deem decent men, another trend suggests we’re willing to group any album that shoots at least 50% from the field alongside the aforementioned exemplary bodies of work.
Having done the math, one could assume Kanye West, a self-proclaimed futurist, recognized those currents and, for each G.O.O.D. Music release last month, decided to streamline the handful of songs listeners would probably skip to anyway into one concise album per week—a good idea in theory, but unwise when considering creative praxis, in that a reduction in songs doesn’t necessarily dictate a reduction in skips.
In efforts to both correct that practical error and fulfill West’s dream of delivering compact, skip-free listening experiences, we’ve trimmed seven major hip-hop albums from 2018 down to seven tracks each, starting with the latest offering from Yeezy’s nemesis and neighbor, Drake.
Scorpion — Drake
- God’s Plan
- In My Feelings
- Nice For What
- Sandra’s Rose
- March 14
A few publications, Hot 97 alum Scottie Beam, current Complex writer Frazier Tharpe, and more have all attempted to refine this album’s massive tracklist. While those attempts were admirable and mostly well-conceived, they still left room for questions that could only be answered in accordance to the individual investment each particular Drake fan has in the Torontonian’s music.
Is “I’m Upset” good or has it merely grown on us with each viewing of the Degrassi reunion depicted in its video? Lyrically, did the verses on “Talk Up” lag behind the quality of the song’s production, or did they do their job of effectively matching the mood? What exactly was the objective of “Ratchet Happy Birthday,” and why is it the most polarizing song on an album that also includes acquired tastes such as “Summer Games” and “Final Fantasy”?
The above seven songs eliminate all room for debate and feature the two most reliable strains of Drake’s addicting artistry over the past ten years. From top to bottom, this fictitious tracklist features a crop of radio hits bookended by resonant accounts of the rapper’s life.
Although he’s known for consistently delivering quality outros, folks would be remiss to ignore the fact that Drake gave us one of the three best rap intros of all time on Nothing Was the Same, with “Tuscan Leather” being in company with JAY-Z’s “Dynasty Intro” and Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” That being said, ”Emotionless” would have been an excellent intro in its own right, centering a pristine Mariah Carey sample and climaxing with the most memorable line of the album, “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid,” in response to Pusha-T’s “The Story of Adidon.”
Transitioning into a reminder that he started the year off “moving calm” and didn’t want any trouble before rap beef found its way to his Calabasas doorstep, the sequencing of those two songs was already emotional manipulation at its finest. The proposal here is the delivery of an album that begins in much the same way, then transfixed the ear with infectious anthems, ending finally with back-to-back earnest displays of charm and introspection in “Sandra’s Rose” and “March 14.” This would have resulted in what would have been Drake’s first unanimous classic album.
Listen to the seven-track edit of Scorpion via Spotify.
TESTING — A$AP Rocky
- Distorted Records
- Tony Tone
- Buck Shots
- OG Beeper
- Brotha Man ft. French Montana
- Purity ft. Frank Ocean
A$AP Rocky has always had a tendency to deliver bloated, aimless bodies of work. His first two studio albums, LONG.LIVE.A$AP and AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, probably could have been combined and stripped down to a single seven-to-nine-song LP, with songs from the latter release claiming the lion's share of the project.
But the album at hand is TESTING, a compilation of half-baked ideas, a pseudo-creative approach to avant-garde artistry, and a grand ambition to impress but not necessarily to improve.
The “A$AP Forever” rapper has always tried his best to present an image of nonconformity and artsy rebellion. But as his day-one fans graduate college, delete their Tumblrs, and mature into adulthood, better-trained eyes and ears have been able to recognize the jig in Rocky’s posturing.
Now finding himself attached to the Virgil Abloh tree of trendy, euro-obsessed black fashionistas, there’s objectively nothing nonconforming, artsy, or rebellious about A$AP Rocky nor his latest album.
TESTING is true to its title, in that it is indeed experimental. But it’s also true to its creator, in that it’s experimentation for the sake of the chemist having been seen in the lab.
Not all experiments are successful. Often, the ones that fail never had any true purpose to begin with. That’s where TESTING goes wrong—from the moment of its inception. Outside of Rocky’s unwavering determination to prove how eclectic his ear can be, matching how “different” his famed aura and swagger have always been, the Harlem rapper’s third album has no real objective.
The seven songs listed above are a mix of his most enjoyable explorations (“Distorted Records,” “Brotha Man,” “Changes,” and “Purity) and instances in which he seems the most focused on recreating the sort of dazzling charisma that first landed him on rap blogs and forums back in 2011 (“Tony Tone,” “Buck Shots,” and “OG Beeper”). Everything else on the original 15-track album was a misstep.
“Praise the Lord (Da Shine),” a fan favorite featuring Skepta, is noticeably missing from this list. That’s because outside of a good music video the song is painfully average, and that bouncy “Playboi Carti Type Beat” style of rap is only fun when executed by Playboi Carti (or Drake).
Admittedly, A$AP Rocky is a star for many reasons—he’s a serviceable rapper, the visuals for his songs are among the best of any genre, and, to borrow a line from Hov, he can dress his ass off and his walk is mean.
None of those things make TESTING a good album outside of these seven songs.
Listen to the seven-track edit of TESTING via Spotify.
Redemption — Jay Rock
- The Bloodiest
- For What It’s Worth
- Knock It Off
- ES Tales
- Wow Freestyle ft. Kendrick Lamar
- Redemption ft. SZA
Of the seven albums we chose to cut down for this exercise, Jay Rock’s triumphant Redemption was the easiest to refine. Not because there’s an abundance of outright bad songs, but because the sequencing of the original tracklist is so cinematic, the middle of the album feels like exposition that’d find itself on any cutting room floor when shrinking a feature film to a short.
The first four songs and the last three songs of our seven-track version of Redemption match the buildup and resolution of the actual 13-track project identically.
“The Bloodiest” remains the film’s thrilling, gritty opening scene. On “For What It’s Worth,” the story’s protagonist first realizes the conflict that the plot will be centered on—the consequences of his actions and self-destructive impulses, and his fight to maintain a more righteous worldview.
Jay Rock (as “Eastside Johnny”) navigates that fight throughout the next three songs—sometimes blissfully and unrepentantly on songs like “Knock It Off” and “Wow Freestyle,” and other times painfully aware of the irreversible damages his surroundings tend to inflict on its inhabitants, as noted on “ES Tales.”
Reconciling the way Rock wavers throughout the story, the album’s title track finds the rapper in a place of clarity, molded by the bumps and bruises he accrued along the way. This penultimate song on the album, featuring SZA, serves as the final scene of the movie, with Eastside Johnny redeeming himself through everything he learned on the first five tracks. This includes lessons like the disingenuous way folks who never bothered to advise you mourn your passing after your decisions finally take you out, the boundless possibilities for absolution that arrive should you ever get a chance to duck the repercussions of those decisions, and how to recognize true allies along the way.
On “WIN,” the lights come on, the credits roll, and applause fills the theater. It’s celebratory, and a well-earned release of joy after the story runs its course.
With Redemption already being a remarkable piece of storytelling in its entirety, of course, this condensed version has deleted scenes that would understandably be missed—most notably “OSOM,” on which the rapper further contextualizes the story.
Whichever way one decides to trim this album, the odds of there being a regrettable placement are slim, speaking to exactly why Redemption stands as one of the best projects of 2018 so far.
Listen to the seven-track edit of Redemption via Spotify.
KOD — J. Cole
- Kevin’s Heart
- 1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”)
Over the past few years, J. Cole has hit his stride as a creator of concept albums, delivering neatly packaged stories in 2014 Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only. Yet even with that development in his artistry, his detractors maintained their most staunch critiques, insisting the rapper’s music is monotonous, inaccessible to those outside of his rabid and at times pretentious fan base, and not nearly as interesting or illuminating as that fan base would have you believe.
Certain aspects of those critiques changed with the release of KOD, an album on which Cole, after years of stewing in the house, now seems aware of a world outside of the doubts and the fears and the woes that plague his own mind.
In adopting an already popularized sound for the first time since he “let Nas down” on “Work Out,” along with directly addressing the harmful effects drug culture has on young fans and rappers alike, and ultimately grappling with the surreal nature of graduating from the people’s champ to the subject of “fuck J. Cole” chants, KOD in its entirety is a deep dive on how separate the journey can feel for adolescents and OGs once it becomes clear they aren’t quite peers, even though they’ll eventually come to face all the same challenges in life.
Similar to how he approached 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole narrates other people’s stories throughout KOD in order to illustrate his own worldview. Going as far as to empathize with one of the most viral pieces of celebrity gossip this year on “Kevin’s Heart,” the rapper’s fifth studio album and eighth overall full-length sound like he finally turned the WiFi on in his home after a long, confusingly principled hiatus.
On “Photograph,” Jermaine is a shooter sliding into DMs, traversing the treacherous landscape of digital dating; on “ATM,” he’s a SoundCloud rapper trying to keep up with the expected spoils of mainstream stardom; on “Motiv8,” he is that mainstream star, predictably ostentatious and drowning his sorrows in drugs and money; on “KOD,” “BRACKETS,” and “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”),” Cole is himself, except a more secure version, confident in his place among the supporting cast of characters he portrayed throughout the album’s larger narrative (a version of himself unlike the one who reminded us of the time he lost his virginity on every album prior).
Throughout the 12 tracks originally placed on KOD, there’s a harmonized duality. The seven tracks we chose to feature are merely the strongest examples of such; a highlight reel, cut from what already stands as Cole’s most captivating performance to date.
Listen to the seven-track edit of KOD via Spotify.
Invasion of Privacy — Cardi B
- Get Up 10
- Bodak Yellow
- Be Careful
- Best Life ft. Chance The Rapper
- I Like It w/ Bad Bunny & J Balvin
- I Do ft. SZA
Like Jay Rock’s Redemption, Cardi B’s debut album was easy to cut down to seven tracks due to its fantastic sequencing, with the five best songs on the album all appearing one after another in the first half of the tracklist. And like the seven songs we highlighted on Drake’s Scorpion, the tracks on this shortened version of Invasion of Privacy all rely on Cardi’s most dependable traits as an artist—her ability to excite and inspire via her carefree confidence and authenticity.
With Cardi B being the most exciting new star in music, all seven of the above songs are urgent and necessary. “Get Up 10” is a refreshing take on the merits of stripping. It’s also a song that grew in importance once Nicki Minaj, Cardi’s main contemporary, decided to aim some ugly respectability politics at sex workers in a recent interview with Elle.
“Bickenhead” is an album cut turned nightclub staple, confirming her gifts as a hitmaker are as natural as they are abundant. “Be Careful” and “Best Life” are victory laps, proving not only can she capture the mainstream with her trademark Uptown sound, but she can also execute a more traditional pop crossover, just for the fun of it.
Cementing Cardi’s legacy as the first female rapper with two No. 1 records on the Billboard Hot 100, “Bodak Yellow” serves as a reminder that she ruled all of summer 2017, and “I Like It” is her official claim on the summer of 2018.
With “I Do” being the closing track on both our version and the original version of Invasion of Privacy, Cardi found the final piece to the puzzle, stringing a complete album together from top to bottom, affirming the fact that she’s a fully realized artist and not merely a good guest feature or chart climber or clout rapper. Not many artists, male or female, can say the same.
Listen to the seven-track edit of Invasion of Privacy via Spotify.
Culture II — Migos
- BBO (Bad Bitches Only) ft. 21 Savage
- Stir Fry
- Walk It Talk It ft. Drake
- MotorSport w/ Nicki Minaj & Cardi B
- Made Men
- Culture National Anthem (Outro)
It’s fair if you listened to Culture II from start to finish only once. It’s also fair if you never made it all the way through at all, and lost interest somewhere in the middle. If 25 Drake songs were tough to swallow, a collection of 24 Migos songs is a definitive choking hazard, given the group, however omnipresent in the genre, is collectively a three-headed one-trick pony.
The formula for how to trim the fat off what felt like the first needlessly long album of the year was simple—keep all the songs that sound the least alike, throw the rest away, and live with the fact that you might have lost a few bangers.
“Narcos” is the opening track to this version of the album. It should also be the opening theme to the Netflix series of the same name, given how exhilarating and irreverent and triumphant it makes the practice of drug trafficking sound.
“BBO” and “Stir Fry” are the two songs that deliver what we all tuned in to this album for in the first place—soundtracks to either witness or participate in every bit of ass-shaking our hearts desire.
“Walk It Talk It” is the obligatory Drake feature meant to boost the streaming numbers, and “MotorSport,” featuring rivals Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, is the conversation starter of the album, as fans fuel a beef born out of a conflict that has yet to be explained.
“Made Men” is the jazzy, luxurious take on trapping every rapper stole from Rick Ross, and “Culture National Anthem” is the slow-burning outro meant to trick you into thinking you just experienced something cohesive.
Admittedly, our slim version of Culture II is only slightly more listenable than the original.
Listen to the seven-track edit of Culture II via Spotify.
SR3MM — Rae Sremmurd
- Up In My Cocina
- Perplexing Pegasus
- Buckets ft. Future
- Offshore ft. Young Thug
- Brxnks Truck
- Anti-Social Smokers Club ft. Zoë Kravitz
- Chanel ft. Pharrell
Boating a monstrous 27-song tracklist, SR3MM, a three-volume compilation following Rae Sremmurd’s SremmLife and SremmLife 2, needed the Kanye treatment more than any other album on this list—largely because of how disappointing Swae Lee’s contributions were to the overall project.
Aptly naming his nine solo songs Swaecation, the melodic half of the rap duo simply didn’t show up the way most of us thought he would.
Despite “Touchscreen Navigation” working as a serviceable intro and “Guatemala” improving with each cocktail on a drunk night, “Offshore” is the only solo Swae Lee song that’s listenable no matter the setting. But even with that inclusion, there’s definitely a version of the above seven-song tracklist that consists of four Slim Jxmmi solo cuts and three tracks on which the duo is working in tandem—”Offshore” just barely made it.
Aside from a standout performance from Lee on “Up In My Cocina,” another song that works particularly well as an intro, Jxmmi is the MVP of both our version of SR3MM and the original. Moreover, after this album, he should also be considered the MVP of the group in general.
SR3MM was revealing. There was a time when most people, folks at this publication included, considered Swae Lee the Quavo of the duo; meaning we considered him the Beyoncé of the duo; meaning when we first heard of a project consisting of a Rae Sremmurd album, a Slim Jxmmi album, and a Swae Lee album, we collectively thought to ourselves, "Keep the former two, and just give us the latter.”
We were wrong. Slim Jxmmi’s energy, bravado, and strip club-champion swag is undoubtedly the secret sauce to Rae Sremmurd’s success on this album and, more than we expected, throughout the two brothers’ now four-year run.
Jxmtro, Jxmmi’s solo effort, sounds like a batch of traditional Rae Sremmurd songs, except with Swae Lee’s vocals removed from certain areas. “Perplexing Pegasus” and “Buckets,” two of the tracks from the joint album we included in our seven, could have easily found themselves on that side of the compilation.
With “Brxnks Truck,” “Anti-Social Smokers Club,” and “Chanel” closing out our shortened version of the project, SR3MM (and the Rae Sremmurd experience as a whole) is Slim Jxmmi’s home. We’ve just been addressing the mail to the wrong name.
Listen to the seven-track edit of SR3MM via Spotify.