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, UK 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.
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