The need to stay the hell apart from humans this year resulted in a sweeping halt on the production of movies, television shows and the like. It also means no festivals, concerts or trips to the silver screen. Fortunately, making music doesn’t require a mess of people congregating—especially if you have skills with instruments and your own accoutrements-laden studio—so we still got a steady stream of tunes while trapped in the crib.
Unfortunately, 2020 wasn’t the strongest year for hip-hop, which could be a reflection of the fact that rappers don’t do well with creating music under such severe financial and psychological duress. (In contrast, navel-gazing indie rock had a pretty damn good year.) I blame it entirely on the zeitgeist, but I struggle to think of one truly amazing rap album in 2020, which certainly wasn’t the case for its preceding year. I briefly skimmed projects from the “Baby” rappers since they dominated the mainstream in 2020, only to be met with the expected mind-numbing triplicate flows that my about-to-turn-40 ears simply cannot abide. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you feel similarly and won’t come at my neck for the absence of that piffle from this list.
Rap had inarguably the biggest and maybe most cathartic song of 2020 with Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” But even that classic “Whores in This House” sample and an extremely, um, compelling video couldn’t elevate the song to “good.” Catchy perhaps, but not good. I’m certainly less enthusiastic overall about hip-hop in 2020 than I was the last couple years, but no year passes without some gems that will stand the test of time. Here are 10 dope tracks from a year that we’re all ready to have Agent K zap from our memories.
Em’s 11th album Music to Be Murdered By (which just received a full-ass album as a “B-Side” in-between drafts of this piece) is his top-to-bottom best in years. This track belongs to Royce–the better half of Bad Meets Evil–because of his production and what, for my money, might be the verse of the year. Royce also produced the entirety of his own 2020 album The Allegory, which is also worth a listen.
Jay Elec-Yarmulke’s surprise drop at the very beginning of our national quarantine excited quite a few heads who weren’t already over his constant debut album delay shenanigans. A Written Testimony is a too-short-for-the-wait joint album with Jay-Z, who apparently adores Elec enough to play Ghostface Killah to his Raekwon on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. “Universal Soldier” employs a slow, haunting S. Maharba sample that Hov would likely never have picked for his own album, yet on which he sounds surprisingly at home.
Roth has occupied an interesting space in hip-hop since debuting in 2009 as sort of an Eminem-goes-to-college. He’s a capable, respectable white-boy spitter in the way the late Mac Miller was, the way Jack Harlow is becoming, and the way Russ will likely never be. Thing is, you sort of have to go looking for a new Roth project—it’s unlikely to be blasting in a club or someone else’s ride. However, every album of mixtape of his has something worth listening to, and 2020’s Flowers on the Weekend is no exception: As I still bump it almost daily more than seven months after its release, “Hunnid” might be the most enduring song on this playlist.
Dave East is a relentless spitter with the sex appeal to boot, much like his spiritual predecessor Method Man, whom Dave portrays on Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”; he keeps the ladies entertained while impressing the men with a dexterous flow and compelling monotone. Never is he better than on his own EastMix series, for which he raps over other folks’ beats or gets official on his own loosies. This EastMix cut is more than five minutes long with no hook, and is superior to anything on his mediocre Karma 3 studio album from this year.
Nas received more accolades for his 13th album King’s Disease than he has for any music in a good while. (Lots of folks would rather forget about King’s Kanye West-produced predecessor NASIR.) The Hit Boy-produced album didn’t do much for me, but it was delightful to hear the reunion of the original Firm (Nature’s T-Mobile was apparently cut off and he didn’t get a text about the meet-up), especially the first new Foxy verse I’ve listened to since we had a Bush in the White House. I never thought I’d desire another Firm album in 2020, but stranger things have happened this year.
It’s in my constitution to root for Sean, a fellow Detroit boy who graduated from my high school alma mater and seems to be an overall likable dude. However, the sad truth is, he’s never crafted a truly memorable body of work, keeping him out of the air of his contemporaries Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. His fifth album, Detroit 2, while not a classic, is Sean at his most focused I’ve heard him in his career. The Hit-Boy-produced “Lucky Me,” on which Sean does what rappers do and boasts about how great shit has been going for him, has the best beat/flow switch I’ve heard from any artist in a while.
Grant is hanging out with the likes of Saigon and CyHi Da Prynce (and, well, Jay Electronica) in that tragic stable of rappers with the potential for greatness who, for reasons unknown to the listening public, failed to capitalize on their own buzz and didn’t put out music at the clip they should’ve. Just the same, I’ve checked for everything Grant has done since his amazing 2016 mixtape, ’88. His first two studio albums didn’t quite live up to the promise of ’88, but his 2020 EP God Bless the Child with Los Angeles producer Tae Beast is nigh perfect and stands as a reminder that one can be a true spitter while not putting out music that sounds anachronistic or droning on about how “we’re bringing the 90s back” or some such other goofy shit.
AML, a Michigan-based boom-bap group active in the era when Rawkus Records was still a thing, reunited this year after more than a decade and a half apart. The most famous members of the nine-piece group are Grammy-nominated crooner Mayer Hawthorne and rapper-producer 14KT, who has cut tracks for Bun B and Jay Electronica, and who crafted this beautiful dusty-soul-sampled cut.
My guilty-pleasure pick (there’s always one). The video got attention for coming across like a huge NFL ad full of beloved Black athletes at a time when the NFL needed as much grace from niggas as it could find. But there’s something infectious about this damn beat, and “Sometimes we laugh sometimes we cry and you know now….baby” is way more catchy than it has any right to be. I guess that’s why Drizzy is arguably the world’s most popular living rapper. Hell, even Bill Murray is in on it.
The wavy young brother from the DMV called himself “retiring” from rapping this year, which everyone knows to take as seriously as twitter.com/realdonaldtrump. He left us with No Pressure, which seems to be a spiritual sequel to his 2014 debut Under Pressure. The original “Soul Food” was one of the best from that album, and the sequel employs the same beat with some flourishes and a different beat change. Say what you will about this kid – and many have a lot of shit to talk – but he can out-trap damn near anyone, and no one can take that away from him. Now, we wait for Logic’s Kingdom Come-esque “comeback” album.