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