The Hollywood Reporter's critic ranks the developments that made the most indelible mark on the industry this year.
2018 was long and punishing, no matter how you dice it. Pop culture offered us some — but not a ton — of relief. Musically, this year felt a lot like the last few years: Trap, Auto-Tune and pop seem as dominant today as they have been at any time this past decade.
There were some highs, including soundtracks from films like A Star Is Born and Black Panther that captured the zeitgeist (and earned commercial success) with two very different sounds finely attuned to the stories they were supporting.
We also witnessed a cascade of head-scratching lows, including practically everything Kanye touched. And does anyone remember that Justin Timberlake cowboy album? Yikes. Hopefully we can leave much of 2018 in 2018, but it’ll be hard to shake the following memories and moments — the good, bad and ugly — that defined mainstream American music this year.
Whether you find him great or grating, Kanye West somehow outdid himself in terms of sheer absurdity this year — from rapping “Poopidy scoop, scoopdiddy whoop, whoop, di scoop, di poop” on “Lift Yourself” to producing multiple records (including his own, the largely forgettable ye) to wearing a MAGA hat and meeting with Trump (because, sure, why not?). What does this all mean? I have no idea. Someone take away Kanye’s phone. Please.
Notoriously in control of her image and persona, Beyonce made an uneven but not uninteresting album with husband Jay-Z — together billed as the Carters — called Everything Is Love, which spawned the bombastic spectacle of the On the Road II tour.
The combined project was an overt record of their relationship: the equivalent of going to a couple’s wedding vow renewal ceremony, getting into all the drama of past marital indiscretions and building a narrative of reconciliation. Are they really in love forever? Or are they just excellent business people?
We may never know, but it’s clearly not the end of the tour — or of their ongoing presentation as the wealthiest and most powerful duo in all of music.
As is the case every year, we lost many unique and powerful musical voices in 2018. But two hurt more than the others. Of course, there was the passing of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, which reminded us how vital she was — even though we already knew it.
And then, less than a month later, we learned of the death of Mac Miller, an artist still on the ascent, many argued.
Ariana Grande had already birthed many excellent memes before 2018, but this year her space in the culture became undeniable. Whether it was “BDE” and her whirlwind relationship with Pete Davidson, her genuinely sweet album Sweetener or the late arrival of “Thank U, Next,” Grande was at the forefront of music and pop culture.
Even though it seems like a million news cycles ago by now, Virginia-bred rapper Pusha T released a strong record called DAYTONA earlier this summer, and with it escalated one of rap’s all-time great beefs. The highlight of the album was the song “The Story of Adidon,” the cover art of which showed a real photo of Drake in black face. In the track, Pusha revealed to the world (and scooped the folks at TMZ) that Drake — an artist he had a long-term public beef with — has a secret biological son to whom, he argued, Drake has been a deadbeat dad.
And — of course — Kanye produced this record, so it became a giant political rap imbroglio that got so heated that rap elder J Prince had to step in to quell things. Was this all kayfabe to sell more records, as Drake suggested in a rebuttal? Or was it two rappers on very different ends of the genre’s world earnestly duking it out in one of the most entertaining conflicts of 2018? No matter; it felt as real as anything can be in 2018.
A version of this story appears in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.