The Best Verses Of 2018 To Listen.
In an era where “Vibe” is judged with increasing importance, one might think that the art of penmanship would take a backseat. After all, skeptics have been declaring hip-hop dead for years now. Yet 2018 brought upon a variety of ridiculous verses, with no shortage of bars, multisyllabic rhyme schemes, flows, and cadences. In fact, I daresay that lyricism has been flourishing, keeping both the craft and Funkmaster Flex alive in equal measure.
At this point, it seems futile to worry about the state of rap; such narratives seem to have sorted themselves out organically, as artists continue to put time, love and thought into their writing. If it wasn’t already evident, this year proved that “lyrical rap” was still alive and well, put forth by sources both stalwart and unexpected. Dispel your notions of “rappity rap” and “lyrical miracle” nonsense; the best verses arise from nuance, from structure, from context. Of course, one’s technical prowess must be exceptional, but innate skill is but one step in the formula.
Though the selection process was difficult, the following twelve verses stand out as true marks of excellence. Behold, the best verses of 2018.
12. XXXTentacion – “Infinity (888)”
Travelin’ through the infinity, uh
You not that n***a, pretend to be, uh
All that bullshit do not get to me, uh
I am a spirit, an entity, uh
You just wan suck up my energy, uh
I am the realest since Kennedy, uh
You pussy ass n****s fuckin’ suck, you sound the same
I spit the pain, that’s why these young n****s feel the same
They know I bang, I’ll pull a fuckin’ pistol out the Range and act insane
Where matters of technical prowess are concerned, XXXTentacion has often been omitted from the greater conversation. Such dismissals aren’t without foundation; between 17 and ?, the range of X’s creativity renders moment of traditionalism few and far between. Yet for whatever reason, he and Joey Bada$$ developed a noted chemistry, culminating in a pair of tracks: “King’s Dead Freestyle,” and “Infinity (888).” The latter emerged as an anomaly on ?, being the lone nocturnal foray into film-noir-stylized “boom bap.” And while sharing a track with Joey is no easy feat (Badmon held a top-five position in last year’s edition), X likely surprised many, delivering a scene-stealing performance.
Off the bat, X comes through with a high-intensity cadence, painting vivid depictions of gun-barrel fellatio among other morbid curiosities. He proceeds to switch from an elongated “desert Eagle” scheme into a rapid-fire “shape-shift” scheme, showcasing an underused, and likely underrated flow. Though the double time segment is an impressive take on his signature “ay” flow, the crowning moment arises in the powerful conclusion: “I spit the pain, that’s why the young n***as feel the same.” A defining line, delivered with the conviction of one who has already accepted his fate. Rest in peace, X.
11. Pusha T – “The Games We Play” (Verse 3)
This ain’t for the conscious, this is for the mud-made monsters
Who grew up on legends from outer Yonkers
Influenced by n****s straight outta Compton, the scale never lies
I’m two-point-two incentivized
If you ain’t energized like the bunny for drug money
Or been paralyzed by the sight of a drug mummy
This ain’t really for you, this is for the Goya Montoya
Who said I couldn’t stop, then afforded me all the lawyers
It has become common practice to vouch for Pusha T’s lyrical prowess. Rightfully so. The man has been a stalwart presence in the rap game since the days of murdering Pharrell and Chad Hugo bangers. This year, Pusha proved that longevity is among a veteran’s most gifted attributes. In fact, the GOOD Music capo delivered the strongest album of his solo career in Daytona, while batting off ornery Owls with flippant indifference. It’s no secret that Push is a talented writer, and “The Games We Play” finds the Clipse legend standing comfortably within his element.
It is the use of imagery that sets Pusha apart from his peers. Like a gifted director of photography framing a cinematic shot, Push derives inspiration from the visual. “Mud-made monsters” stands among the year’s brilliant metaphors, elevating the notion of “rising from the dirt” into something tangible, all while sliding in restrained homages to the harmonious relationship between mid-nineties East and West rappers. Everyone likely imagines something different upon being warned of a drug-mummy, and therein lies the brilliance. For those who have witnessed such horrors, it’s relatable. For those who have not, Pusha’s words provide enough base materials to fill the canvas and then some.
10. Royce Da 5’9” – “Not Alike”
Everybody doin’ chick joints
Probably rob these little dudes at fist-point
‘Member everybody used to bite Nickel
Now everybody doin’ Bitcoin
We don’t got nothin’ in common
We don’t got nothin’ in common
Y’all into stuff like doubled-up Styrofoam cups
On them uppers-and-downers (woo!)
I’m into stuff like doublin’ commas
Find me a brother who’s solid
To count the shit up and then bust the shit down
When the cops hit us up, we can flush the shit down
Royce Da 5’9’s Book Of Ryan delivered a novel’s worth of stellar writing. In keeping with the literary theme, however, it felt difficult to remove an isolated chapter without suffering a loss of much-needed context. Were Bad Meets Evil’s lone 2018 collaboration “Not Alike” to remain a guarded secret, I would have likely drawn from Royce’s storytelling clinic “Power.” Yet the Kamikaze reunion between two Detroit legends encapsulated everything magnificent about Royce as a rapper. For one, the man essentially bodies the track while snoozing; his lackadaisical charisma simmers with tension, at once both calm and storm.
From that moment on, Royce showcases an artful balance between several key foundational elements, namely punchlines, wordplay, and flow. “Probably rob these little dudes at fist-point,” spits Royce, an amusing image in its own right, ‘member everybody used to bite Nickel, now everybody doin’ Bitcoin.” His cadential mastery quickly becomes evident; he takes his voice to three different places throughout, using it to add an extra dose of energy in the verses’ concluding stages. Double-time has become somewhat of a hallmark of technical prowess, but it is nothing if the words behind it are shallow. Luckily, few understand wisdom like Nickel Nine. “Knowledge is power, but powerless if you got it and you do not acknowledge it,” he warns, before passing the mic to his equally formidable partner. It’s no easy feat to keep up with Eminem, yet Royce makes it look exactly that.
9. JID – “Off Da Zoinkys”
You don’t want smoke, so what it’s gon’ be?
Gotta watch what you say when you lookin’ at me
Lookin’ at God, lookin’ for leaders, lookin’ for keys
Look at the pain in your eyes, n***a, look where we been
Look at our wins, look at our sins, and look at our skin
I’ve been on a frenzy binge tryna get me a Benz
And then your fuzzy ass dance wanna fuck up the ends
Oh God, no, where are my friends?
Lord forgive me, yeah, I need to repent
The “East Atlanta Playboy” turned in a tour de force performance on DiCaprio 2, likely solidifying himself as one of the game’s most important young lyricists. And while songs like “Slick Talk,” “Westbrook, ” and “151” found JID rapping his ass off, the comically titled “Off Da Zoinkys” brought a welcome dose of nuance to the mix. In a way, “Zoinkys” marks the album’s most overtly thematic cut, a reflection on the rampant spread of drug culture delivered in a razor-focused stream of consciousness. I’d like to highlight the importance of pacing in verses such as this; it’s imperative to warm up before diving into complex flow schemes, as the mastery of attention span is an underrated art in a rapper’s toolkit.
On that note, JID sets it off with a few jabs, building momentum off a relatively simple rhyme scheme. At around 1:13, however, JID kicks the door down and expands off his pre-established theme, switching into a more dexterous flow. Eventually, the beat opens up into a more soulful soundscape, and JID reacts accordingly with a subtle cadential shift; from that moment, his words feel energized by the instrumentals’ new direction, and thus, retain a noted sense of poignancy. It’s these little things that separate JID from many of his contemporaries, and proof that his pen game is among the new generation’s most well-balanced. Do not underestimate the power of subtlety; it can often elevate one’s message and thus, one’s craft in unexpected ways.
8. Don Toliver – “Can’t Say”
Oh, didn’t I hit your cousin? Mhm, no—no discussion
Sipping on lean, no Robitussin, oh, yeah, I know you love me
I beat it ain’t no cuddling, you down bad, you suffering
I don’t give a fuck how hard it get, that lil’ bitch know I started this
Uh-huh, oh, yeah, get to the cash, no layup
Spend a big bag, Rodeo, some may ride for the fresh cut
Hoes come through just to touch us, I’ma tell the truth like Usher
You already know how I bust her, slang my chop from Russia
A verse doesn’t have to be a nonstop lyrical barrage to earn merit. Of course, content is important, but likewise is context. Consider Travis Scott & Don Toliver’s late-game Astroworld cut “Can’t Say,” which has emerged as an undeniable fan favorite. One such consensus seems accepted by the masses: Don Toliver killed that shit. For many, “Can’t Say” proved an introduction to the melodic Cactus Jack signee, and a welcome one at that. Following in the footsteps of the legendary T-Pain, Toliver proved that autotune-bars can thrive in today’s climate, even if the subject matter feels particularly driven by hedonism.
Yet somehow, Toliver brings a notable sense of conviction to the act of getting inebriated and seducing one’s cousin. As his debaucherous reflection unfolds, his voice and the beat seem to coalesce; before long, he’s riding the instrumental in a dynamic fashion, bringing a giddy energy as he stretches his syllables to suit his purposes. “I beat it ain’t no cud-dl-ing, you down bad, you suffering,” he raps, hinting at a lyricist’s clever ear. I anticipate some raised eyebrows at this inclusion, especially at so high a spot. Yet Toliver’s work on “Can’t Say” is a welcome addition to the list, drawing max efficacy during the late night hours. Forget your predispositions and allow yourself room to vibe.
7. J. Cole – “My Boy”
I gotta black to make sure every dirty dollar stacked
Y’all aiming for the stars, bitch, I’m aiming at your Starter cap
Run, n***a, run like a fucking black quarterback
Stereotypical, but to hear me is pivotal
I will bury you n****s and come and air out your funeral
Have your homies on stretchers right next to Roman numerals
IVs, IVs it’s the reason why nobody try me, try me
Have a n***a screaming, “Lord, why me? Why me?
Cole did me grimy, he took it too far, he treat them bullets like they Siamese”
J. Cole has long played the part of hip-hop’s benevolent king, seemingly taking pride in his ability to carry a load by his lonesome. Yet this year found Cole nursing a generous disposition, doling out features seemingly willy-nilly. Fans and artists alike were quick to reap the benefits of his collaborative spirit, including Cole’s longtime friend Wale. Together, the pair delivered “My Boy,” one of the year’s truly slept-on bangers. From the moment his verse kicks off, J. Cole proceeds to slide through with an effortless flow, padding his playful rhymes with threatening imagery. Like his fellow Dreamvillian JID, Cole understands the importance of pacing; in that sense, his verse on “My Boy” follows the trajectory of an avalanche.
At around the 3:00 minute mark, Cole has reached his apex, combining strong similes (black quarterback) with seamless flow segues, culminating in one of the year’s craziest moments of wordplay to date: “Have your homies on stretchers right next to Roman numerals.” The line itself, a flip on IVs, is enough to solidify “My Boy” as Cole’s biggest flex of the year. From sending Siamese bullets to spending a small fortune on undergarments, “My Boy” is peak braggadocio as imagined by one of the game’s most talented lyricists.
6. Tory Lanez – “Litty Again”
I tax these n****s, get at these n****s, attack these n****s
The venom is arachne, n****
I’m ’bout kill da man and da man that done backed these n****s
And blam any man that’ll try to dap you n****s
And clap any stan fan that attract you n****s
See ya daddy was a musician that never made it
‘Cause when you was born n****s it was you or him
Shattered knowing he would never make it as an artist
And the odds of his life prolly be 2 to 1
But I give it to him ’cause he didn’t run
I guess he figured, “man when you look at it in a nutshell
All I got is a failed music career and
My revenge is giving that shit to my son”
If rap is sport, than Tory Lanez and Joyner Lucas proceeded to put on a skills competition for the masses. Upon trading a volley apiece, Tory’s “Litty Again” found himself unleashing the combined forces of every Canadian mythological beast, from the Wendigo to the Sasquatch to the lake-dwelling Ogopogo, upon his foe. “Litty Again” arrived on the heels of Joyner’s initial counter, and Tory wasted little time in raising the stakes. On the surface, “Litty Again” is a masterclass in flow, as Tory obliterates the instrumental with compact rhyme schemes and a relentless energy.
It’s safe to say that Tory’s crowning moment left Joyner baffled; Lucas attempted a follow-up in “ZEZE,” though the masses concluded it was simply not up to snuff. Yet due credit should be given to Tory Lanez, for taking a “beef” that might have never gained legs and transforming it into something truly exciting, if undeniably low-stakes. While many likely viewed Lanez as a solid rapper, “Litty Again” certainly elevated his status, marking him as a formidable foe with one of the best flows in the game. The fact that he penned such a relentless assault within a twenty-four-hour window makes this all the more impressive.
5. Meechy Darko “U & I”
Feelin’ so self-destructive, like I’m clinging’ to death
Took my five-digit check and copped some bigger baguettes
Took a look at my ring, finger charm on my neck
Still in touch with myself, that flashy shit won’t prevail
I really be shopping for happiness, but that shit ain’t for sale
But if you don’t show ‘em then they won’t think you do it well
I heard that blood’s thicker than them Atlanta strippers
But these my brothers, I ain’t got real brothers to know the difference
And, Erick, if I could, I’d give your mama my kidney
‘Cause she my momma, too, I promise you
I ride for my ***, die for my n***s
Load .4-5 pull homicide for my n****s
The importance of cadence cannot be stressed. Not only does vocal versatility allow for easier slant rhymes and facilitation of tonal shifts, but it serves as a catalyst for greater expression. With a voice as distinctive as Meechy Darko’s, the possibilities are limitless. His imposing growl is given new depth on “U&I,” the emotional crux of Flatbush Zombies’ Vacation In Hell. Throughout the sample-driven banger, Meech reflects on his circumstances with a raw sense of vulnerability, taking his time to build a slow-burning autobiographical narrative with stunning attention to detail.
The climactic moment arises as his own childhood winds down, and Meech takes a moment to honor his fellow Zombies. “And, Erick, if I could, I’d give your mama my kidney,” he raps, “’Cause she my momma too, I promise you.” A straightforward line, but one imbued with power; a power that might falter, had Meech shown anything less than barefaced vulnerability. You can see it when he speaks on his suicidal thoughts, crying as his five-year-old self told his mother he wanted to die. Though Pac comparisons are a faux-pas, there’s something about Meechy’s ability to balance genuine familial love with life’s stark violence that draws parallels with the late legend. Comparisons aside, Meechy Darko’s performance on “U&I” is a crowning achievement, not only for the writing itself, but for the masterful unity of cadence, delivery, and flow.
4. Young Thug – “Offshore”
Stop this rap shit, turn to a mob any day
Bossman, I could get homie dropped any day
I’ll slap the shit out Donald Trump any day
Brand new assistant I like, any day
Better get it right if you don’t want gunplay
I’ma do it right and fill up the driveway
Bentley on the side and it’s sittin’ on LeBron James
911 Porsche got me takin’ you on a date, ayy
Pistol Pete mobbin’, I’m bangin’ it all day
Baddest and the baddest and the baddest like all day
I ran up the millions, I did it all my way
Hundred dollar bills and I like ’em all straight
Though “Offshore” is technically labelled as a Rae Sremmurd song, the track truly belongs to Young Thug. Jeffery takes to Mike WiLL’s atmospheric, hypnotic instrumental with minimal effort, contributing nearly three minutes of unconventional delivery and outlandish bars. For those who balk at his inclusion, consider the technical brilliance of King Slime’s verse. His voice slips through a wide spectrum of cadences, from the cartoonish to the downright soulful, extending syllables to fit his ever-changing rhyme scheme.
In some ways, “Offshore” feels like Jeff unleashed, the epitome of his zany unpredictability. Yet there is genuine brilliance in the constantly unfolding structure, as well as the metaphors and imagery found within. “Hoes can’t talk when I talk where I’m from, 32 pumps make ’em run, Forrest, run,” raps Thug, before belting out “Monte Carlo, poppin’ my collar, wrestle that ho like The Mothafuckin’ Rock.” There’s something uniquely listenable about Thugger’s turn here, as he shifts through an arsenal of different flows, stringing them together with an underrated sense of technical prowess. When he sets his mind to it, Young Thug can stand alongside any rapper in the game.
3. Eminem – “The Ringer”
Motherfucker, shut the fuck up when I’m talkin’, lil’ bitch
I’m sorry, wait, what’s your talent? Oh, critiquing my talent?
Oh, bitch, I don’t know who the fuck y’all are
To give a sub-par bar or even have an opinion of you,
You mention me, millions of views, attention in news
I mention you, lose-lose for me, win-win for you
Billions of views, your ten cents are two
Skim through the music to give shit reviews
To get clicks, but bitch, you just lit the fuse
Don’t get misconstrued, business as us’
Shit-list renewed, so get shit to do
Or get dissed ’cause I just don’t get
What the fuck half the shit is that you’re listenin’ to
Where release dates are concerned, Eminem has never been one to break convention. Therefore, when he dropped Kamikaze out of nowhere, an aura of suspense immediately surrounded the album. It was clear that frustration was a driving factor, and while a “back to basics” narrative was never overtly confirmed, it was certainly implied. In truth Em’s 2018 effort contains some of his best rapping in years, and narrowing down one particular “verse of the year” was a difficult task. Ultimately, “The Ringer” set an immediate tone, delivering five minutes of lyrical dexterity, and more importantly, both character-development and context.
It goes without saying that Eminem has mastered the technical elements of rapping; in fact, his abilities have come to be ridiculed by those looking to drag “rappity-rap.” Yet “The Ringer” succeeds because it is a sequel – not to a specific song, but to a forgettable stage in Em’s legendary career. Of course, the expected qualities are present, from the wordplay to the scathing sense of gallows humor; there’s something uniquely refreshing about hearing Em send shots at notorious smartasses Vince Staples and Charlamagne over crisp production from Ronny J and IllaDaProducer.
2. Jay-Z – “What’s Free”
I ain’t got a billion streams, got a billion dollars
Inflating numbers like we ‘posed to be happy about this
We was praisin’ Billboard, but we were young
Now I look at Billboard like, “Is you dumb?”
To this day, Grandma ‘fraid what I might say
They gon’ have to kill me, Grandmama, I’m not they slave
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, check out the bizarre
Rappin’ style used by me, the H-O-V
Look at my hair free, carefree, n****s ain’t near free
Enjoy your chains, what’s your employer name with the hairpiece?
I survived the hood, can’t no Shaytan rob me
My accountant’s so good, I’m practically livin’ tax free
Last year, Jay-Z’s 4:44 cemented his legacy, as if it needed further validation. Yet 2018 found a marked absence of solo Hov music; like many in relationships, his demeanor slightly changes while performing alongside his wifey. Yet Meek Mill’s Championships found Hova coming through with a closing statement, made all the more powerful by his presence alone. In truth, both Rick Ross and Meek Mill might have landed spots on this last, had Jay not put things in perspective. Decades deep in the game and he’s still able to effortlessly body a beat, blending wisdom with scathing cultural observation, business acumen with street-smart savvy. In a game of professional talkers, few can back up their words like the Jigga Man.
Themes touched on in “The Story Of OJ” are revisited, this time with an added dose of venom. “We was praisin’ Billboard, but we were young,” sneers Hov, “Now I look at Billboard like, “Is you dumb?” The simple efficacy speaks to a growing dissent between the perceived voices of mainstream culture and those that actually drive it. In that regard, such a statement might falter were it not delivered by Jay-Z, a true GOAT contender. And the message is but one aspect of “What’s Free.” The flow is flawless and the vernacular remains unparalleled; who else causally slides “Shaytan” into a bar? Not many verses can make you shut up and listen, but you can bet that the car goes silent when the Jigga Man steps to the podium.
1. J-Cole – “Boblo Boat”
The truth is that my new shit slap, you never heard it better
Give me a sec, I murder sectors, prefer to let ya
See it rather than say it, but it spill out, I gotta chill out
Say “Fuck the world” and never pull out
We had no Boblo boat but I could note
Those times is like a Bible quote
BC, before cell phones, the first time I would smoke
I was six years old, but that’s for another chapter
That’s for another story, to God be the glory
I made it out unscathed and now I sunbathe
With my son in Tanzanian sunrays thinking ’bout dumb days
To go bar for bar with Royce Da 5’9” stands among the rap game’s more difficult tasks. Yet “Boblo Boat,” the first single off Book Of Ryan, served to bring a peak-form J. Cole back into the fold. Dropping before KOD was even announced, “Boblo Boat” found J. Cole in his most reflective state, with themes fueled by Cool & Dre and 808 Ray’s nostalgic production. Cole remains eloquent as usual, yet there is a magical universality entrenched within his musings of adolescence. “Twist the cap, lift the bottle back, swig it, dig it, ten-inch rims on my mama’s Civic, “Ten-inch woofers in the trunk, to be specific,” raps Cole; not only are there impressive rhyme schemes at play, but an author’s attention to detail.
As his verse continues, the scope of Cole’s journey widens. Harkening back to his juvenile quest for sexual conquest, Cole deftly weaves reflections on how priorities change with time. “This was my main concern back when concerns were lesser,” spits Cole, “nowadays, I often yearn to press the backspace button or hit return but life is not no word processor.” Is he suggesting that such a process is meant to erase regret, or relive the “glory days?” Such ambiguity sets Cole apart from his peers. Not to mention, his technical prowess is on full display throughout, as complex flows and multisyllabic rhymes are delivered with the effort of a man sunbathing in Tanzania.
It might not be the flashiest, but there is something undeniably powerful about Cole’s writing on “Boblo Boat.” It’s not easy to expand on an existing theme, all while injecting the message with a coherent and entertaining story, yet Cole does so with a literary flourish; where pen game is concerned, you’d be hard pressed find a more well-constructed piece of hip-hop writing.