Best Hip-Hop Debuts of 2018 (Staff Picks)

From Tierra Whack's innovative 'Whack World' to Cardi B's triumphant 'Invasion of Privacy,' our staff makes their picks for the best hip-hop debut of 2018.
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Best of 2018: Best Debut Albums of 2018

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 our favorite debut projects of 2018.

Whack World — Tierra Whack

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Tierra Whack managed to inspire a good portion of the rap game in just under 15 minutes. Debuting an album in bite-sized Instagram video format was ingenious enough, but filling said album with a smorgasbord of sounds, styles, colors, and influences was quite a monumental feat. Whack World could have simply been a great rap record, but it managed to shepherd one of the most exciting rap talents of the decade inside of a brilliant marketing scheme— just ask Buddy and Jaden Smith, who cribbed inspiration for their own releases. Whack World will remain a must-see destination for years to come. —Dylan "CineMasai" Green

In a year where some of the biggest rap albums felt like J. R. R. Tolkien marathons, Tierra Whack’s Whack World packs more into 15 minutes than most rappers did in 95. From bouncy R&B ballads and intricate, introspective raps to a caricatural country song about telling an ex to fuck off, the 23-year-old Philly native proves she has Steph Curry range on her weird and wonderful debut project. Plus, her ability to bring her music to life through quirky, creative visuals is reminiscent of when Missy Elliott came in and changed the game. Whack World’s bite-sized 60-second songs—inventive in their own right—may be ripe for social media consumption, but Tierra Whack isn’t just here for her 15 minutes of fame. Ask admirers like André 3000, Solange, or Lauryn Hill. Imagine what she might do on a full-length album. —Andy James

When I first heard Tierra Whack’s Whack World, I was also watching it, as a single 15-minute music video. The project was as arresting then as it is now. The conceit is brilliant: roughly one minute per song. The payoff is massive: Whack captured the short attention span of today’s audiences and kept us coming back for repeated spins. When Whack raps on opener “Black Nails” that she’s “in her fuckin’ bag,” did she know she’d have us in the bag too? —Ben Taylor

Invasion of Privacy — Cardi B

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Cardi B’s "15 minutes" of fame aren’t over. The boisterous Brooklyn personality lived up to expectations and then some on her GRAMMY-nominated debut, Invasion of Privacy, delivering another chart-topping hit in “I Like It” while filling out the rest of the album with standouts like “Money Bag,” “I Do,” and “Bickenhead.” Already headlining festivals like Rolling Loud less than a year later, don’t expect Cardi's run at the top to be over anytime soon. —Kenan Draughorne

With the benefit of hindsight, I feel almost foolish for harboring doubts, but truth be told, I was massively skeptical about Invasion of Privacy going into my first listen. Worried that Cardi’s songs would feel dwarfed by the gigantic shadow cast by “Bodak Yellow,” I was genuinely stunned by the level of range she displayed and how vastly she’d managed to exceed my expectations. Keeping the album at a tight 13 songs, she wisely chose to sidestep the filler, taking no prisoners as she launched directly into a self-aware mission statement about overcoming adversity and empowerment. With a talented ear for production to boot, Invasion of Privacy was a triumphant debut where Cardi proved that she will continue to be a force in hip-hop for as long as she desires. —Hershal Pandya

MUDBOY — Sheck Wes

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Channeling the raw energy at the heart of both his club anthem “Mo Bamba” and his guest feature on Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD cut “NO BYSTANDERS,” Sheck Wes brings his rage to life on MUDBOY, creating a distinct, unruly sound in the process. The 20-year-old muses on the adversities of his adolescence on “Live Sheck Wes” (“It gets tragic where I live, everything is negative / Hold the roaches in the crib, elevator full of piss”), and even raps in his native tongue of Wolof on “Jiggy on the Shits,” all while maintaining a captivating indignation throughout. It’s precisely this unique combination of anger and sophistication that makes MUDBOY so oddly compelling. —Stephen Barston

Harlan & Alondra — Buddy

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In a year stacked with encouraging and truly gifted debuts, veteran rookie Buddy and his debut, Harlan & Alondra, topped my list. Offering a more colorful, sonically wondrous look at growing up in Compton compared to the more traditional, contemporary approach to documenting life in the inner city, Harlan & Alondra is a goldmine of alluring concepts and enticing production. Overstaying your welcome on a debut is the easiest of pitfalls, but Buddy's 12-track package never feels bloated or long-winded. Harlan & Alondra is a record that keeps on giving. I can’t wait to see where Buddy goes next. —Matt Wilhite

Loose — Jack Harlow  

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I don't want to start by telling you all I told you so, but I absolutely told you so back in January when I profiled Jack for DJBooth. Since then, Jack has gone on to sign to Atlantic and deliver his commercial debut project, Loose, totally switching up his creative process and relishing every second of it. Here's the thing about not picking Cardi B for this category: I never questioned the quality of Invasion of Privacy. With Jack Harlow and Loose, I had no idea the album—the break of tension—and his imminent stardom on the stage were in the cards with Gazebo dropping just a little over a year from the time of writing this. Jack Harlow surprised me in the best way possible, and he pushed his creative boundaries to do it. And this isn't even the album. —Donna-Claire Chesman 

Punken — Maxo Kream 

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Trap music is the medium perfect for Maxo Kream. The Houston rapper has lived the life that is the art form’s main source of inspiration. On his debut album, Punken, Maxo digs deeper into personal reflection while maintaining magnetizing wordplay. He’s authentic, a writer who isn’t afraid to display an honest depiction of a world where drugs are dealt, addictions are fought, enemies are targeted, friends are buried, and hope is scarce. Yet, this is the life he knows, and capturing that life in a way that’s riveting, entertaining, and humanizing is why Punken stands as the best debut of 2018. —Yoh 

Harder Than Ever - Lil Baby

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Distilling Lil Baby’s true debut as a bona dude rap star in 2018 down to only his official debut album seems criminal in its oversight. Three projects, top-10 hits, show-stealing features—it was domination at every turn. Yet Harder Than Ever is good enough to own this honor on its own merit, a star-studded showing of dominance in which Baby rarely cedes the spotlight. It also houses the year’s best song (“Life Goes On”). —Brendan Varan

Volume 1 - Pink Sweat$

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You probably aren't familiar with the name Pink Sweat$, which means you also aren't familiar with his tender six-track EP Volume 1, but no debut project captured a larger chunk of my heart—and my time—in 2018. Over bare-bones production, the rising singer-songwriter showcases his immaculate voice—think Khalid without the El Paso twang—and radio-made pen game, resulting in a tightly-wound introductory offering with an incredible amount of replay value. Dealing with a broken heart never sounded this good. —Z

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