From feuds to trends and everything in between
In 2018, some of the industry’s finest wordsmiths found success with protest songs, LGBTQ anthems and meme-generating bangers. They commented on the news cycle or dissected their own portrayals in the media. They criticized the music industry’s biggest institutions and wrestled with what to do with its most notorious newcomers. They boasted about their success and bared their souls with lyrics about personal demons. One taught us about love, patience and pain…and one taught us about whatever poopy-di scoop is. Below, Billboard highlights the lyrics that tell the story of music in 2018, from feuds to trends and everything in between.
Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel” (February)
“Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you/ All of the feelings that I've got for you/ Can't be explained, but I can try for you”
Just 12 hours into 2018, Hayley Kiyoko dubbed the new year “#20GAYTEEN,” tweeting, “It’s our year, it’s our time.” She was referencing to a slate of projects from LGBTQ artists that brought queer visibility in the mainstream to new heights, but there were some highlights she couldn’t have predicted: A day before the release of her widely acclaimed Dirty Computer LP, Janelle Monáe came out as pansexual — something she seemed to hint at in songs like “Make Me Feel” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” — in a Rolling Stone cover story that immediately set off a spike in searches about the term. There were other coming-out stories. There were other great songs and albums by LGBTQ musicians. And, yes, there were some tough conversations — like the criticism and defenses of Rita Ora’s “Girls” — that showed just how much of a voice queer artists have in popular culture. Good news: According to Kiyoko, #20GAYTEEN actually never ends.
Cardi B, “I Do” (April)
“They said by now that I'll be finished, hard to tell (I can tell)/ My little 15 minutes lasting long as hell, huh?”
2018 was Cardi’s year: She dropped one of the year’s best albums, set records with hits like “I Like It” and “Girls Like You,” became a mother and also completely enamored the internet. Since debuting on the Hot 100 with “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, the Bronx native has tallied 23 entries on the chart, with six of those peaking at No. 6 or higher. The former stripper, Instagram personality and Love & Hip-Hop star knows that her unconventional career path led many to write her off. But in 2018, she’s one of many viral successes who have become unlikely artists in their own right: The “Cash Me Ousside” girl from Dr. Phil now goes by Bhad Bhabie and dropped a mixtape in September called 15, which spawned two Hot 100 hits and features collaborations with Ty Dolla $ ign and Lil Yachty. Mason Ramsey — a.k.a. Yodel Boy — also crooned his way from Walmart into Justin Bieber’s heart and a contract with Atlantic Records. Ready to feel old yet? Even The Backpack Kid is making music now.
Nicki Minai, “Chun-Li” (April)
“They need rappers like me/ So they can get on their fucking keyboards and they can make me the bad guy, Chun-Li”
In 2018, Nicki Minaj’s music was often overshadowed by unflattering headlines: a messy rollout for her album Queen; her qualms with Travis Scott, who bested her for the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200; her endorsement of her “FEFE” collaborator 6ix9ine, who in 2015 pled guilty to use of a minor in a sexual performance (and has since had other legal woes); and of course, the brewing tension between her and Cardi B that reached a boiling point at a Harper’s Bazaar party. Whenever Minaj addressed the day’s drama on her Queen Radio gigs, her comments often only fueled the flames. But as Minaj’s lyrics on “Chun-Li” suggest, she saw this public vilification coming — and she certainly wasn’t the only artist in 2018 who saw the public narrative around her sour, from Kanye West to Grimes.
J. Cole, “1985” (April)
"I'll be around forever 'cause my skills is tip-top/ To any amateur n***** that wanna get rocked/ Just remember what I told you when your shit flop/ In five years you gon' be on Love & Hip-Hop"
J. Cole typically ends his albums with a bang, saving his strongest and most thought-provoking messages for the grand finale (see: “4 Your Eyez Only,” “Note to Self,” “Born Sinner”). The rapper’s latest album, KOD, continues that tradition, with the recent Billboard cover star taking aim at the rising generation of rappers on “1985.” Cole and Lil Pump — presumed by many to be the target of the former’s tsk-tsking — would later hash out their differences in an hour-long interview, but the track brought the generational tension between “old school” hip-hop stars and the SoundCloud-rap vanguard to the forefront. Other veterans followed his lead in 2018: On Meek Mill’s Championships LP, Rick Ross spends four bars going directly after 6ix9ine, while Eminem takes aim at Lil Yachty on Kamikaze (to say nothing of his feud with Machine Gun Kelly this year). In recent years, even Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg have been critical of the genre’s newest stars, who haven’t exactly been reverent in return. Before his death this year, XXXTentacion said he was better than Tupac, while Lil Xan called 2pac “boring” in 2018. Don’t expect the tension to revolve itself anytime soon.
Kanye West, “Lift Yourself” (April)
“Poopy-di scoop/ Scoop-diddy-whoop/ Whoop-di-scoop-di-poop/ Poop-di-scoopty/ Scoopty-whoop”
Kanye West had an interesting year. The 41-year-old household name quarterbacked a rollout of five albums from his G.O.O.D. Music label over the span of a month, serving as producer on all and starring rapper on two. But he also ventured deeper into politics than many, many of his fans and famous friends cared for, making highly-publicized trips to the White House and firing off pro-Trump tweets. At times he’s seemed extremely self-aware about his own reputation: “If you ain’t driving while black do they stop you/ Will MAGA hats let me slide like a drive-through?” he rapped on Pusha-T’s “What Would Meek Do?” earlier this year. At others, he’d be his usual, unpredictable self — like when he took on the role of creative director role of the first-ever Pornhub Awards. Was he for real? Was he joking? Is he trolling us all? It’s been near-impossible to put a finger on West in 2018, and nothing captures that uncertainty like April’s “Lift Yourself,” whose nonsensical, semi-scatalogical lyrics prompted the same reaction that so many of his other antics did this year: Huh?
Childish Gambino, “This Is America” (May)
“This is America/ Don't catch you slippin' now/ Look how I'm livin' now/ Police be trippin' now/ Yeah, this is America/ Guns in my area”
Pop music in 2018 got topical with May’s “This Is America,” — a modern protest song that addressed gun violence and police brutality against black people. Childish Gambino debuted the song on Saturday Night Live and simultaneously shared the track’s music video online, setting the internet ablaze — and grabbing an unlikely debut slot atop the Hot 100. “This Is America” is only one of 12 songs to top the Hot 100 this year, and its lyrical content certainly separates it from the pack. “Gambino's handling of these themes has proven understandably controversial,” Billboard’s Andrew Unterberger wrote after its chart debut, “but at the very least, it's undeniable that he's sparking conversation about them — which, with Kendrick Lamar's ‘Humble.’ standing as perhaps the lone arguable exception, is more than can be said for any of the other Hot 100 No. 1s of the Donald Trump era.”
Pusha-T, “The Story of Adidon” (May)
"A baby's involved, it's deeper than rap/ We talkin' character, let me keep with the facts/ You are hiding a child, let that boy come home/ Deadbeat mothafucka playin' border patrol"
Rap beefs practically drove the story of hip-hop in 2018, from Nicki vs. Cardi to Eminem vs. MGK. But the biggest fight of all was unquestionably between Pusha-T and Drake. After the former appeared to take shots at the latter on his critically-acclaimed Daytona LP, Drake responded in kind with “Duppy Freestyle,” which put both King Push and Kanye West in his crosshairs. Then, a few days later, Push came back with the vicious “The Story of Adidon,” which dug up an old image of Drake in blackface for the track artwork, broke the news about him being father and allegedly ruined a forthcoming campaign between him and Adidas. Though the beef sorta, kinda ended there, for a moment Drake’s status as an untouchable A-lister seemed up in the air. He rebounded, of course, with the summer smash of “In My Feelings,” but it’s hard to imagine the public will forget such a scathing, legacy-blighting lyric like “You are hiding a child, let that boy come home” anytime soon. Yugh.
JAY-Z, “APESHIT” (June)
”Tell the Grammys fuck that 0-for-8 shit/ Have you ever seen the crowd goin' apeshit?”
In 2017, when the Recording Academy unveiled the nominees for the 60th annual Grammy Awards, it seemed like the ceremony would finally be giving hip-hop artists their due, with multiple nominations for Jay-Z’s 4:44 and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. That ended up not happening: Jay-Z left empty-handed despite his eight nods, which inspired this diss to the Recording Academy on June’s surprise Everything Is Love LP. (The fact that Beyoncé’s Lemonade lost out to Adele’s 25 for album of the year the previous year — despite Adele’s own shock — probably didn’t help matters.) And though he got the last laugh, the debate over the Grammys’ relevance has continued to be point of conversation in 2018, with the Recording Academy launching a diversity and inclusion task-force to identify obstacles for women and other underrepresented groups in the industry, as well as December’s new batch of nominees for 2019 that are giving many a reason to be optimistic.
Demi Lovato, “Sober” (June)
“Call me when it’s over cause I’m dying inside/ Wake me when the shakes are gone and the cold sweats disappear/ Call me when it’s over and myself has reappeared”
This year offered an abundance of raw, candid lyricism from big-name artists expressing their struggles, from those with substance abuse to mental health. On this year’s “In My Blood,” Shawn Mendes opened up about his struggles with anxiety in hopes of reducing the stigma, telling Billboard in an interview, “It’s kind of about something that I think everybody goes through, and it’s something that I think people don’t talk about often, especially in music.” Other songs, like Demi Lovato’s “Sober,” released a month before an overdose, highlighted just how far the industry still has to go when it comes to providing proper support to those in need. One of the most heart-wrenching entries came from Mac Miller, who rapped about “havin’ demons that’s as big as my house” on the song “2009,” from this year’s Swimming LP, released just a month before he died of an accidental overdose.
Chance the Rapper, “I Might Need Security” (July)
“I donate to the schools next, they call me a deadbeat daddy/ The Sun-Times gettin’ that Rauner business/ I got a hit-list so long I don’t know how to finish/ I bought the Chicagoist just to run you racist bitches out of business”
Chance the Rapper bragged about buying Chicagoist in “I Might Need Security” — one of the four surprise singles he dropped July 19 — but he also put on blast other publications he felt covered him unfairly. The implication? If you don’t like the media channels available to you, just take control of your own. The issue wasn’t entirely new for Chance, who reportedly threatened to cut ties with MTV over a mildly negative concert review on MTV News that the site eventually took down. And while social media has long offered celebrities a chance to circumvent traditional media outlets, Chance’s acquisition was one of a few instances of musicians in 2018 trying to exert notable control over their depictions in the media: Nicki Minaj sent her fanbase after a blogger who wrote critical tweets about her and basically auditioned for a second career as a radio personality with her Queen Radio broadcasts, during which she often commented on the headlines about her, while Beyoncé skipped a traditional interview for her Vogue cover story, for which she also selected the photographer and reportedly had “unprecedented control.”
Vic Mensa, 2018 BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher (October)
“Your favorite rapper’s a domestic abuser, ay/ Name a single Vic Mensa song, [censored] we all know you won’t live that long/ I don’t respect [censored] posthumously”
Vic Mensa dove headfirst into one of the thorniest debates of the year on this BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher, calling out the troubling histories of artists like the late XXXTentacion — who admitted to abusing his ex-girlfriend in a secret recording that surfaced posthumously this fall — and how the public should handle their legacy and popularity. Since his death in June, XXXTentacion has been a mainstay on the charts, with this month’s Skins LP recently hitting the top of the Billboard 200. But he was hardly the only artist to drive that conversation about problematic artists, from 6ix9ine (see: his aforementioned legal troubles) to R. Kelly, who was (along with XXXTentacion) briefly the target of Spotify’s “hate content and hateful conduct” due to long-standing accusations against him (which Kelly has denied). Despite these case studies, however, the question of how to be an ethical listener in a musical landscape where alleged misconduct seemingly lurks around every corner is still as complicated as ever.
Ariana Grande, “thank u, next” (November)
“One taught me love, one taught me patience/ And one taught me pain, now I’m so amazing”
From the moment Ariana Grande surprised her fans with “thank u, next,” the song took on a life of its own. Not only did the track break records with its well-hyped, event-level music video, it also inspired countless memes — especially with this line from the pre-chorus — to the tune of millions of tweets. The song, and the reaction to it, was the cherry on top to a year of abundant musical memes, from Drake and Cardi B to all things A Star Is Born, that made the “Harlem Shake” era look like the internet’s dark ages. And everything about “thank u, next,” from its quick, unstructured rollout to Grande’s clear internet fluency and catchphrase-worthy lyrics, shows why she’s able to thrive as a pop star in a fast-moving hip-hop economy.