The 15 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2020
In a year beset by the most horrid and unusual circumstances, leave it to the hip-hop community to challenge our beliefs and voice our activism. The best records of the year served as rallying cries and made us reconsider the very genre itself.
This is the year when hip-hop artists threw everything at the wall -- and it all stuck! Hip-hoppers made art about art (Blu & Exile's Miles), made art with lush musicianship (D Smoke's Black Habits and Spillage Village's Spilligion), and made art with humor and self-reflection (thank you Open Mike Eagle, Homeboy Sandman, and Serengeti).
We experienced the rising tide of the Griselda wave with Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine, and Westside Gunn, as well as albums enhanced by travel and culture like those from Aesop Rock, Preservation, and Riz Ahmed. For that matter, U.K. rap continued to light a fuse, as J Hus, Flohio, Headie One, and Pa Salieu served up some of the most compelling productions in recent memory. Speaking of production, the flavor and textures in hip-hop's compositions were equally intense and diverse. You would be forgiven if you had trouble remembering any beat-maker not named The Alchemist, Metro Boomin, Hit-Boy, or Kenny Segal.
Rappers maintained winning streaks (notably Freddie Gibbs with Alfredo, Roc Marciano's Mt. Marci, and 21 Savage &Metro Boomin's Savage Mode II) and veterans surprised us with worthy entries to discographies (check out Busta Rhymes, Goodie Mobb, Nas, Paris, and Public Enemy). Even Jay Electronica released an album -- or two if you count Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn).
What hip-hop artists did so well was to look inward and connect with their passions. They then found the most creative ways to share their connections with us. Whether the subject matter embraced self-care, fictional characters, lyrical prowess, sex, crime, mayhem, or combating intentional and systemic racism, rappers poured every ounce of themselves into their material.
It's as if all of the years spent absorbing influences and inspirations prepared the artists for a sonic explosion. Fortunately, we will all be better for it, as hip-hop in 2020 moved the needle in exciting directions. With so much to enjoy, this list most accurately represents 15 of the best albums released this year, rather than a definitive list of the absolute best.
Image by bluebudgie from Pixabay
15. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News [1501 Certified/300]
When a rising rap personality graduates from the mixtapes to the event studio album, they often exchange their established and uncompromising street flow for easy pop hits, gaining mainstream success while leaving their DatPiff stans in the digital dust. With Megan Thee Stallion, that wasn't the case.
Opening up her studio debut Good News with a beautifully slapdash mixtape-ready beat on "Shots Fired", she wastes zero seconds telling her side of the July 2020 incident where rapper Tory Lanez shot her. "He talkin' 'bout his followers, dollars, and goofy shit / I told him, 'You're not poppin', you just on the remix,'" she spits, eviscerating in him in one line but then continuing to rip on him for an entire second verse just because goddamn does it feels good. Good News is a thrilling, sex-positive, and downright entertaining rap record, weighed down only by her male guest features (because when a diva-like S.Z.A. joins her "Freaky Girls", Megan sounds completely energized). Good News is the kind of record that doesn't announce a burgeoning new talent so much as prepare us for the fact that we'll be hearing her for years on end. That's some Good News indeed. --Evan Sawdey
14. Pa Salieu – Send Them to Coventry [Warner]
"Sending someone to Coventry" means to discard or ostracize that person. I imagine it's like the situation comedies in which one character has passed away and none of the other characters can see or hear the deceased. Coventry is also a city, so the double meaning is clever.
But who's the "them" in the album title Send Them to Coventry? The debut from British-Gambian rapper Pa Salieu doesn't answer that question. Rather than drawing lines of division, Pa gives us a contour sketch of his life, backstory, and passions. It's up to us to identify and assess what belongs outside of those boundaries.
"Look, my name is Pa and I'm from Hillset," he tells us at the start. His flow is jagged and angular yet shapeshifting in response to dancehall bounciness, grime, and West African rhythms. Contributions from guest stars (Boy Boy, M1llionz, Eight9Fly) round out the effort. There's even an impressive posse cut in "Active" feature Ni Santora, Lz Dinero, Stizee, and Shakavellie. But it's the progression from his bleak upbringing to his hopefulness and self-affirmation in album closer "Energy" (featuring Mahalia) that gives this effort its true shine. This is the rare occasion when sequencing matters because Pa Salieu has crafted a journey from Coventry to self-actualization. --Quentin Huff
13. Riz Ahmed – The Long Goodbye [Mongrel]
The surprising thing about actor-rapper Riz Ahmed's The Long Goodbye isn't its conceptual nature, a nine-track collection (not counting the skits) that wades through one man's breakup with an entire country, named Britain. It's like Dagha's 2008 The Divorce, except Dagha's album was actually about divorce. This album's about living in a post-Brexit world as a person of color and being greeted with "outsider" status.
It's no surprise that the protagonist's reaction to the toxicity of this relationship-gone-terribly-wrong is deep-seated and visceral. Nor that his friends call during the skits and asides to prop up his esteem ("Do not let her kick you out of the house that you built!") while family members offer solace ("If she doesn't want you, you just leave and come home!"). Maybe we should be surprised that rap skits continue to endure.
But, no, the surprise is that it's Britain who broke up with him, not the other way around. From mistreatment to outright oppression, we can understand why the protagonist would decide to end it. But he doesn't. Instead, it was her. That little nugget illustrates the cycle of alienation and anguish that is derived from systemic and continual abuse. The music's industrial leanings contrast with its traditional Asian samples, the sonic embodiment of a relationship in opposition.
The Long Goodbye is not a love letter; it's an acceptance. And it's not the "goodbye" that's important but how long it takes to adjust. --Quentin Huff
12. Denzel Curry/Kenny Beats -- Unlocked [Loma Vista]
There's a growl in Denzel Curry's voice that absolutely no rapper can match right now. It's guttural, it's focused, and it's beautifully weaponized.
Blessed be us, the listeners, that over a scant 18 minutes, Curry doesn't waste a second of his time, blazing through the tracks on his Kenny Beats collaboration Unlocked with what can only be described as a fury. Built out of a reported beef over beat-sharing that has since been squashed, Kenny Beats' productions feel like he's aiming to be an in-house producer for the legendary Definitive Jux label at the turn of the millennium. Each track is filled with odd squeaks and too-quick spoken word samples providing a funnel for Curry's lyrical attacks.
"Are you ready for the motherfuckin' giant? / The tyrant, the titan, the ogre, the Lycan? / The vampire, taking over empires? / If the game was a tooth, I'm a fuckin' pair of pliers," Curry spits on "DIET_", the gravel in his pipes eventually boiling to the point where he sounds almost indistinguishable from D.M.X. (which is acknowledged with a Ruff Ryders' "What!" shout in the mix).
Playful, impactful, and instantly memorable, Unlocked is the rare kind of rap album that leaves you wanting for more the second it's finished. Dynamite stuff. --Evan Sawdey
11. Elzhi – Seven Times Down Eight Times Up [Fat Beats]
The meme culture of 2020 often referred to generic things as a "mood" or even a "vibe," but make no mistake: Elzhi's Seven Times Down Eight Times Up isn't only a vibe -- it's a masterstroke.
Riding immediate, laid-back, and hazy beats by relatively unknown producer JR Swiftz, the lyrical confidence that Elzhi exudes across this record is breathtaking. Seven Times Down is his first new release since Slum Village's 2019 album The Source and his first proper solo record in four years, but with his elaborate and intricate wordplay and taught verses, it's clear that his flow is like a fine wine, only getting better over time.
The internal rhymes he achieves with the line "My moral compass accomplished more than the G.P.S. inside a Prius" (off of "EarlyBird Nightowl") exhibits his undisputed skill. Still, it's his storytelling that ultimately leaves the most lasting impact. Tracks like the trap house robbery tale "THUGGed Out Zombies" paints the scene with a nearly cinematic flair, focusing less on violence and braggadocio and more on creating memorable characters, unearthing his emotional vulnerabilities in the process. It's a hell of a listen, and the kind of thing that makes you hope we don't have to wait four more years until the next one. --Evan Sawdey
10. Flohio – No Panic No Pain [Alphatone]
For 28-year-old Funmi Ohiosumah, fame has been sudden. Hot EPs and early singles that are less than a few years old have lead to more than a few publications hailing her as the next big thing in British rap, and, honestly, we aren't going to disagree. All she wants to do with her rap is represent the industrial London towns she grew up in, hard-nosed and strident. Fiery in tone but measured in approach, Flohio doesn't have a chip on her shoulder, no: the hard beats and impactful rhymes of her debut full-length No Panic No Pain belie the intentions of her verses.
"Can't hang with no pagan dunce / Don't fuck with my mazel tov," she says on the album's centerpiece, "Roundtown", a standoffish line that still is imbued with respect. She speaks to her experience and how she's "goin' H.A.M. now," but also admits she's still trying to get her "balance right," living comfortably inside of her contradictions, which in turn makes her come off as relatable and human.
Yes, No Panic No Pain hits with its blunt beats and Flohio's rapid flow, but tracks like the acoustic-leaning "Medicine" reveals the beating heart beneath her hard-edged productions. No Pain to be found here: Flohio's debut is a transportive pleasure. --Evan Sawdey
9. R.A.P. Ferriera – Purple Moonlight Pages [Ruby Yacht]
"In Tom Hortons, dressed like a Transformer / Talkin' 'bout Jacob Lawrence portraits." That's how R.A.P. Ferreiro (that's Rory Allen Phillip Ferreiro, but you may know him by his Milo moniker) opens his second verse in "Ro Talk". It's a brilliant reference to the great painter Jacob Lawrence, known for his 60-panel series "The Great Migration" that depicts Black Americans' exodus from the Southern to the Northern United States. In the early half of the 20th century, these migrations were launched in search of a more equitable political, social, and economic climate. Lawrence's work depicted ordinary life in a laidback but expressive manner, using color and movement to tell stories rather than technical realism.
Purple Moonlight Pages follows this approach, recruiting literary, film, and commercial imagery into a "nonchalant," as Ferreiro calls it, an amalgam of wordplay. With his spoken word whimsy interspersed among cascading stream-of-conscious rhyming, the album's improvisational sound seems right in the pocket over jazzy horns, rollicking pianos, and swampy basslines. Ferreiro's delivery is quietly and patiently intense as his words paint with vibrant colors of meaning and sound. Think 1994's Blowout Comb by Digable Planets, but with less influence from the Black Power movement and more from the Beat poet Bob Kaufman. --Quentin Huff
8. Sa-Roc – The Sharecropper's Daughter [Rhymesayers]
When Sa-Roc (Assata Perkins) bellows "Look at me now!" in "EmergencE", it's as if she's responding directly to her album title. She wants you to see her growth and elevation -- personally and generationally -- as a direct result of being shaped by the "tragedy from where I came" ("Rocwell's America").
Lyrical allusions to Toni Morrison keep company with Norman Rockwell's quintessential slices of Americana. Sa-Roc's verbal dexterity allows her to bend words like "beacon" and "ink pen" until you actually believe they rhyme. It's this type of wizardry that proves Sa-Roc is exactly the "word sorceress" wielding "black magic" that she claims to be during her Black Thought-assisted acrobatics in "Black Renaissance". Similarly, the production aims for the majestic, like the sly flip of the Alicia Keys hit "You Don't Know My Name" or the triumphant mountaintop feel of "Dark Horse".
The watchword is authenticity, and Sa-Roc's energized delivery is the perfect vehicle for putting her full range of talent on display. --Quentin Huff
7. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony [Roc Nation]
After waiting close to a decade for a full-length Jay Electronica album, leave it to 2020 to give us two.
As exciting as the "official/unofficial" nature of the leak for his long-delayed Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) was, the truth is that March's A Written Testimony is by far the superior album. By couching his layered raps about his Nation of Islam ideology in lush orchestrations and creative samples, A Written Testimony feels accessible without feeling even remotely pitched for mainstream acceptance.
Buoyed by an excited Jay-Z, here showing up on eight of the record's ten tracks in uncredited fashion, A Written Testimony is full of fire and verve. Hearing the playful and witty decade-old chestnut "Shiny Suit Theory" in the context of an album is an incredible moment, but the new material here is just as good. "I was born to lock horns with the Devil at the brink of the hereafter / Me, the socket, the plug, and universal adapter," he rhymes on the sepia-toned '70s throwback "The Neverending Story". Given the mystery and power in all of his releases this year, we hope that Jay's story never ends. --Evan Sawdey
6. Spillage Village - Spilligion [Dreamville/Interscope]
It is incredible that after all of these years of mixtapes, we finally have an actual studio full-length from Spillage Village -- and it sounds like absolutely no other rap album released this year.
The Atlanta-based collective, which boasts members like J.I.D., EarthGang, and 6lack, has been dropping their Bears Like This mixtape series since 2014 and managed to generate enough buzz for each member to spin-off solo work on their own. While it has taken years for a creature like Spilligion to form, the result is as strange, beautiful, and uplifting as any hip-hop album released in 2020.
While it's unmistakably a rap album, Spilligion's strength comes from its absolute dismissal of contemporary rap trends, as this record is baked with acoustic guitars, group harmony vocals, and a surreal sense of humor that helps ground Spilligion's unflinching apocalyptic imagery. With wild samples ranging from OutKast on the hazy weed romp "PslamSing" (even if the end product sounds like a thematic inversion of Kanye West's "All Falls Down") to Adrianne Lenker on the warm "Ea'alah (Family)", Spilligion feels like a wholly considered work, asking us what's valuable in the face of our own destruction, even going so far as to reference the Covid-19 pandemic explicitly.
Spillage Village's first studio record feels like a warm embrace, proving that this Spilligion may very well be worth converting to. --Evan Sawdey
5. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 4 [Jewel Runners/BMG]
Run the Jewels 4 operates in high-velocity friction, and the result is a lyrical inferno over intense beats and seething synths. Propelled by dynamic-duo-meets-odd-couple Killer Mike (Michael Render) and El-P (Jaime Meline), it's a whirlwind of innovative and rebellious disruption. Mike brings the daring elements ("I got one round left, a hundred cops outside"). Meanwhile, El-P's the one who knew all along the world was going to hell -- he's already resigned himself to it ("I'm not so sure opportunity's knocking / it's probably the law").
Espousing stark contrasts without room for gradations, Run the Jewels 4 depicts a world fueled by political elitism and corporate hegemony. Oppression is systemic and "born of lies" that are justified by disinformation and algorithms. Guests abound -- thanks to Greg Nice, D.J. Premier, Gangsta Boo, 2 Chainz, Pharrell, and Zach De La Rocha -- and they join the party as comrades in arms. Much like Busta Rhymes's similarly energized sequel Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, this record's not going to convince you of its worldview. It assumes your agreement; otherwise, you must be working for the other side ("Not sayin' it's a conspiracy but you're all against me").
It's also a world in a spiral, collapsing on itself so that time operates in a cycle rather than a straight line. When Mike challenges us to "Look at all these slave masters posin' on your dollar" (in "JU$T"), he's offering a perspective on the past as well as a statement of how history becomes relevant to the current moment. In "A Few Words for the Firing Squad", when Mavis Staples aches with urgency to tell us there's a "grenade in my heart / and the pin is in their palm," you know it's the future fallout of that pin being pulled that should inform what we do in the present. -- Quentin Huff
4. Growing Concerns Poetry Collective -- BIG DARK BRIGHT FUTURE [Independent]
Don't be scared: they may be called the Growing Concerns Poetry Collective, but this trio's aesthetic places them firmly in discussion over what is the best hip-hop record of the year.
While the division of labor is stark (Jeff Austin makes all of the music, while Mykele Deville and McKenzie Chinn do all of the vocals, both with rapping and spoken-word segments), the end result is nothing short of transcendent. Floating on a cloud of indie-rock dreamwave vibes, Deville and Chinn deliver biting, pointed, and downright beautiful pieces. Chinn especially takes daily observations and transforms them into statements both profane and deeply felt.
This is a record that challenges your perspective and assumptions, covering topics ranging from labor shortages due to poor public transpiration access to discovering the beauty of self-pleasure to the significance of reparations. All of these topics are heady by themselves, but presented in such a beautiful, sanguine environment, we can't help but be compelled by each and every story by this Chicago collective. "You can't call the cops on a body that can turn into light," Chinn tells us on "First You Need a Body", and in her journey of discovering her powers, we can't help but stare in wonder. Each listen is its own rare gift. --Evan Sawdey
3. Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide [Rhymesayers]
After years of us music hipsters comparing Aesop Rock's weighty and sometimes inscrutable lyrics to the dense prose of James Joyce, his Spirit World Field Guide brings Rod Serling to mind. Here, Aesop Rock (Ian Bavitz) plays host to a labyrinth of intricate rhyme patterns describing an alternate realm seemingly situated between a dream-like state and hyperawareness. He offers his notes from his "Spirit World travels" as a "guide for anyone whose path may lead them to this unwavering otherness."
The paranoia of past Aesop Rock releases is still there ("Dog at the Door"), but this record conveys a physical and psychological displacement that's at once arresting and cathartic. I think it's Aesop's actual travels, to Peru in particular, that inform the album. You can feel the movement in each song, from his frenetic delivery to the delightfully wonky basslines and bubbly sound effects fit for videogames. Spirit World Field Guide is best enjoyed with headphones so that you can catch all the lyrics, but also so you can catch every beep, blip, and tone in the production.
In the track "Button Masher", he says, "I'm not exactly Major Tom," but this album is a peculiar space oddity that rewards frequent visits. --Quentin Huff
2. Serengeti and Kenny Segal – Ajai [Fake Four]
Serengeti (David Cohn) is a man of a thousand personas, underground rap's Lon Chaney. Not only does he tell a rousing story, he fully inhabits the narrative with an uncanny eye for detail.
Such is the lush rendering of Kenny Dennis, Serengeti's Chicago, Illinois, middle-aged, and mustachioed alter ego. Across multiple releases, we learned that Kenny loves actor Brian Dennehy, drinking O'Doul's, eating bratwurst, rap music from the 1990s, and a woman named Jueles. This Kenny character is so well-drawn, he has his own rap release as a member of the Tha Grimm Teachaz, a fictionalized rap group from nearly 30 years ago who lost a record deal after bickering with Shaq.
This time around, Kenny Dennis shares half of the record with Ajai, a new Serengeti creation. Ajai is a middling comedian who adores fashion, but he regularly embarrasses ("Don't Wear That Suit Ajai") his ultra-supportive and more accomplished wife ("Company Softball"). This dude loves sneakers like Jacob Latimore's Emmett character on The Chi. A shipping mix-up sends his shoes to Kenny Dennis. Producer Kenny Segal provides the soundtrack, successfully merging lo-fi and crackling boom bap with moody and experimental emo.
Between Ajai's "drops" and Kenny's souvenirs in Jueles' trunk, the album's focus on tangible things helps us make sense of the intangible underpinnings. Ajai says, "Clothes are just clothes / I like the way that I look." But we also assign meanings and emotions to our things: "I like the people in line / I like the effort it took." We are reflective of our possessions, and sometimes the things we own begin to own us. --Quentin Huff
1. Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able [Republic]
"Already infamous, limitless, Getty Images / Foul temperament, you start shit, we endin' it / It's mad last wishes, gas mask kisses / The thin line between savants and savages" -- Black Thought on "Good Morning."
It's hard to zone in on a definitive Black Thought moment because his career has been nothing but definitive moments. From his seminal albums with The Roots to his remarkable solo output, he has commented extensively about the Black experience and how it has changed and evolved with him over the decades.
With Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able, he's crafted a demanding document that amazingly doubles up as one of the most immediately accessible works in his canon. Featuring spoken word samples from fiery civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and lyrics that refer to himself as "half killer and half Hugh Masekela," there is a passion that runs through Black Thought's verses that is palpable.
His wit and his wealth of knowledge bleed over every second of Cane & Able's 34-minute runtime, marinating every song in his wisdom. In four short bars off of "State Prison", he crams several millennia worth of history into a mere 12 seconds: "They be like: Black, well, who knew we'd be receivin' a new you / That's part Zulu and Farrakhan meets Pharaoh Khufu? / Misinterpret my level of genius and call it cuckoo / But the Swahili meaning of freedom is still Uhuru."
With able and lively production from overlooked legend Sean C and a roster of guests ranging from the most welcome (Pusha T, ScHoolboy Q, Killer Mike) to the wholly unexpected (Portugal. The Man on three whole tracks), Cane & Able does everything a great rap album should do: it challenges you, it surprises you, it entertains you, and it has you keep coming back for more. There isn't a definitive Black Thought moment because of albums like Cane & Able: we don't know what apex he's going to hit next. --Evan Sawdey