Rap cannot be confined by genre in 2019. As the likes of Rosalia and J Balvin push the sounds of flamenco and Reggaeton further into the forefront of American mainstream music, Lil Nas X is challenging dominant genre labeling and blurring the lines between hip-hop and country music. This is what makes rap the most exciting style of music today. At times it can be punk rock, it can be political, it can be global. It’s been an exciting year already, and these are the best hip-hop songs of 2019 so far.
Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus – “Old Town Road”
There’s probably no song that better defines 2019 than Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” Like the random word generator that our current times have become, Old Town Road brings together an unknown rap star, Billy Ray Cyrus, and a shit-load of drama about Billboard genre distinctions that has evolved into a conversation about race, hip-hop, and the very nature of country music. When Billboard refused to classify the track as country music, Billy Ray Cyrus miraculously stepped in to sing on a remix of the song, thus elevating it to something the meme-lords of the internet could only dream of. As such, the song took on a viral life of its own, eventually even beating out Taylor Swift for the No. 1 song in the country.
Flume feat. JPEGMAFIA — “How to Build a Relationship”
A prolific mixtape rapper who gained notoriety on Soundcloud, JPEGMAFIA has defined himself as hip-hop’s purest form of anarchy with “Does This Ski Mask Make Me Look Fat?” and “I Cannot … Wait Until Morrissey Dies.” But, that doesn’t mean he’s not open to collaborations—in fact, it’s just the opposite. As he told the LA Times last year, “I want to be an example of a true new age artist. I want to work with Danny Brown but also Cannibal Corpse and Maroon 5.” And now, he finds himself working with Australian producer Flume, who is able to reign in JPEGMAFIA’s personality and energy in the new track “How to Build a Relationship,” where the rapper’s sense of humor is on full display with references to both Game of Thrones and professional wrestling.
Slowthai — “Doorman”
Leading up to the release of Nothing Great About Britain, Bajan-British rapper Slowthai labeled himself the Brexit Bandit. “What does it matter about us being part of a union when we can’t resolve the issues in our country?” he told the New York Times. “Look at the rest of it, what we’re actually forgetting by taking so much time to look at this one thing.” The result is an album that acts as a scorching critique of his country—an urgent and necessary work of art in times that demand it. Of these tracks is the stand-out “Doorman,” in which, over a searing bass line, and punk drum beat, he tells a story of the gaping class divide in his country. “Doorman, let me in the door / Spent all my money, you ain’t getting no more wages / Sure Sir, Sir, are you sure?,” he raps.
Megan Thee Stallion — “Pimpin”
The story about how Megan Thee Stallion started rapping is the perfect analogy for one of hip-hop’s most confident up and coming stars. “One day I was at this party, and these dudes was freestyling and I was like, I could rap, and they was like, No you can’t,” she told The Fader. So she walked up to them and dropped a few bars. “They was like Oh! So then everybody around school knew me as Thee Stallion. And she could rap.” That’s how a legend is born. Now, on her debut album, she sounds like a seasoned battle-rapper, with razor sharp bars on every single song. This is most clear on the early album cut, “Pimpin,” which drips with nods to her native Houston hip-hop and also declares her confidence and authority over her own body.
Maxo Kream — “Meet Again”
“I’d rather be carried by 6 before I’m judged by 12” Maxo Kream opens on “Meet Again.” The Houston rapper is one of the most concise new writers in hip-hop, and this line serves as a primer for a song that tells a vivid story about the horrors of mass incarceration that continues to tear apart at-risk communities. At a time when the issue has become a dominate conversation in hip-hop, Kream takes a complex systemic issue and narrows it down to its simplest, most powerful pathos. “The only time I wear a suit and tie is at a funeral or a courtroom for trial,” he raps on the track. His tone is hauntingly matter-of-fact as he weaves a personal narrative of friends who are either dead or in jail.
James Blake – “Mile High” (feat. Travis Scott, Metro Boomin)
Though in recent years James Blake has worked to align himself more as a hip-hop producer than an experimental dance artist, it’s on his latest album, Assume Form, that he fully digs into the genre. On an album that features both Andre 3000 and Rosalia is “Mile High” with Travis Scott & Metro Boomin. Production-wise the track has Blake exploring the low end in fascinating ways he’s done his entire career, while lending his sound to a more trap-focused beat. It’s a perfect blurring of production between Blake and his collaborator Metro Boomin. Meanwhile, Blake and Scott trade off vocals for a formula that helped make Astroworld one of the most seductive albums of 2018.
Lizzo – “Juice”
Lizzo’s ascendency to pop superstardom has been a long time coming. By 2019, it’s all but inevitable. So it makes sense that Lizzo kicked off 2019 with one of her most fabulous bangers yet with “Juice.” The song—which opens with Lizzo singing “Mirror, mirror on the wall / Don’t say it ‘cause I know I’m cute”—comes with a statement that the rapper and singer has been making her entire career. As she told Vulture earlier this year, she’s learning to embrace some of her labels as a “body-positive rapper.” “Even when body positivity is over, it’s not like I’m going to be a thin white woman,” Lizzo says. “I’m going to be black and fat. That’s just hopping on a trend and expecting people to blindly love themselves. That’s fake love. I’m trying to figure out how to actually live it.” With “Juice” among a number of refreshing and ravishing singles Lizzo dropped in the last few months, she’s all but primed to be the artist we need in 2019.
Denzel Curry — “RICKY”
As Denzel Curry told The FADER about his new album, ZUU, “It goes from the sounds of where I grew up, to what I was raised around, to the people I was raised around, to the sounds that pretty much shaped the person I am.” That theme of his native Carol City neighborhood in Miami Gardens resonates most clearly on “RICKY.” In a tight two-and-a-half minutes Curry is able to pack a sweeping narrative of his own upbringing.
Tyler, the Creator – “EARFQUAKE”
After an early career defined by the horrorcore rap of “Yonkers”, Tyler, the Creator returned last year with a brighter outlook on life on Flower Boy. More introspective, more thoughtful, and melodic, Flower Boy marked a turning point in the rapper’s career—one that expanded the scope of his music. And now, he returns to explore that space on IGOR, an album that makes heartbreak sound surprisingly sweet. On “EARFQUAKE,” Tyler pleads with a lover not to leave over soaring harmonies. But there’s nothing tragic about the song. Instead, the melancholy of the song has a surprising clarity, as if Tyler has realized what he’s had, what he’s lost, and come to terms with his own mistakes. That self-awareness isn’t depressing—it’s beautiful and refreshing.
Rosalia, J Balvin — “Con Altura”
With 2018’s excellent El mal querer, Rosalia successfully jumped from a flamenco-adjacent Spanish singer-songwriter to in-demand pop in the States working with Pharrell, James Blake and more. The same can be said for Colombian superstar J Balvin, whose collaboration with Cardi B was a certified Summer 2018 hit (and earned him a Grammy nomination). Together on “Con Altura”, the two combine their musical forces—and sounds dominating western pop at the moment—for a Spanish language hit. The song is proof that neither artist needs an American star—or English lyrics—for a radio banger in the USA.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.