With COVID-19, unemployment sky-high and the streets literally on fire, 2020 was a disastrous year for millions. There’s an old adage that the best music is derived through pain. And perhaps that’s part of the reason why 2020 was such a strong year for rap. One of the challenges of ranking projects in this climate is that there were so many standout releases. Nas’ King’s Disease, Big Sean’s Detroit 2, D-Smoke’s Bad Habits, Blu & Exile’s Miles, R. A. The Rugged Man’s All My Heroes Are Dead, King Batson’s I Want To See You Shining, DaBaby’s My Brother’s Keeper, Felt 4 U, Goodie Mob’s Survival Kit, et al, didn’t crack this list, yet it’s easy to commiserate with an argument that they should have.
So 2020 will forever be notorious from a global perspective primarily. And somewhere after that, it should also be remembered as a great year for hip hop. Peep the nine best rap albums of the year below.
Busta Rhymes — Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God
Busta Rhymes lays out the thesis early on Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God, released on EMPIRE. “As I continue to bring y’all to a place where we remind you how special it is to have a good balance of science, and a good balance of heat,” he says on “E.L.E. 2 Intro,” following a politically charged extended metaphor about how end of the world movies always seem to have a Black president. “Classic shit, as I continue to give you that food. Feast on this full course meal.” It’s an apropos opening.
The first half ELE2 is raucously conscious, bombing on all society’s ills in boombastic fashion, then moves seamlessly into soulful narratives (“Best I Can”) and wildly fun joints (“Boomp!,” “YUUU,” “Oh No”). Lyrically and contextually, Busta remains fresh while flaunting every style. It’s a flex of his skillset as well as his relationships. The tracklist boasts a who’s-who of rap history—ODB and Rakim and Kendrick Lamar and Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige and Q-Tip and Rapsody and Rick Ross and Vybz Kartel and Anderson .Paak and then some all John-blazin’ over a hotbed of super producers equally as magnanimous. ELE2 is immaculately assembled, the perfect balance of science and heat just as Busta laid out in the intro. There’s literally something for everyone without compromising anything. All praise due.
Conway The Machine — From King To A God
There are a slew of incredible verses on Conway The Machine’s debut album, From King To A God. But, two separate themselves from the pack. The first arrives on the “Fear of God’’ featuring Dej Loaf. Over anthemic Hit-Boy production, the Buffalo MC delivers a stanza filled to the brim with filthy braggadocio then closes by aptly celebrating how his collective has captured the culture. “Listen, we built the whole Griselda house with our own hands, we did it from nothin / I mean West owned the land, but I did the construction.”
The crew solidified favorite-rapper’s-favorite-rappers status in 2020, appearing on several high profile projects including GRAMMY album of the year nominees’ The Allegory by Royce 5’9”, and Alfredo by Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist. But moments of focused aggression like the second verse on “Front Lines” exemplify why so many consider Conway Griselda’s most promising member: “Cracker invent the laws, that’s why the system is flawed. Cops killin’ Black people on camera and don’t get charged. We ain’t takin’ no more, we ain’t just pressin’ record. Can’t watch you kill my brother, you gon’ have to kill us all.” Conway The Machine always shows plenty of rawness. From King To A God ushers in his purpose.
Pop Smoke — Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon
Pop Smoke’s posthumous Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon is a beacon in the culture for the Brooklyn Drill sound, representing righteously for a new era in New York rap. Tracks like “Make It Rain,” “For The Night,” “What You Know Bout Love,” and “The Woo” are not only certified hits, but wildly addictive. The album is surprisingly cohesive considering the gaggle of producers enlisted including 808Melo, Wondagirl, MobzBeatz, DJ Mustard, Buddha Bless, and a dozen-plus more.
Maybe it’s the way the pain beneath Pop Smoke’s tonality and penchant for aggressive hedonism harkens to 50 Cent, or how the overall vibe grooves like a late night drive soundtracked by Future’s Dirty Sprite 2. Either way, Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon is more than just music. It’s an entire mood. Pop Smoke’s impact will loom large over generations to come. Rest in power.
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
Of course Jay Electronica’s debut album would land the night America closes to COVID-19. The hip hop gods wouldn’t have it any other way. A Written Testimony is the biggest catastrophe-connected release since JAY-Z’s The Blueprint dropped the same day as the Twin Towers. And with Hov playing co-host, there’s a metaphysical thread running as deep as the stanzas littered across this hyper-poetic tome.
“Some ask me, ‘Jay man, why for so many years you’ve been exempt?’ Cause familiarity don’t breed gratitude, just contempt. And the price of sanity is too damn high, just like the rent,” raps Jay Cirque De Soleica on “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” answering the most prominent question fans have had for the mysterious MC. “I spent many nights bent off Woodford, clutchin’ the bowl, stuffin my nose, some of the cons I suffered for prose,” he emotes on “Universal Soldier,” unveiling his internal traumas to the world outside. From mic to plug, A Written Testimony is a spiritual release that rises during a divine time.
Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist – Alfredo
In 2019, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s collaborative release, Bandana, was critically acclaimed. 2020’s Alfredo with Alchemist deserves the same. The GRAMMY nominated release oozes luxury, moves like waves, and smacks like a head on collision with a Mack truck. Featuring Rick Ross (“Scottie Beam”), Benny The Butcher (“Frank Lucas”), Tyler The Creator (“Something To Rap About”), and Conway The Machine (“Babies & Fools”), Gibbs maximizes Alchemist’s soulful minimalism through crisp narration and cold-blooded coke rap. Both are geniuses in their craft, and together, each lifts the other to rarified air.
Royce 5’9” — The Allegory
Royce 5’9”’s The Allegory was released in February, three months before Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. But, judging from the scathing spotlight this project shines on the political and psychological warfare many Americans experience, you’d think it was crafted in the aftermath of the protests that captured all 50 states. On “Pendulum” featuring Ashley Sorrell, the elite MC implores all to “Rob the rich and leave them with the fucking bill.” On the bouncy, soul-sampled “Tricked” featuring KXNG Crooked, Royce instructs, “My nigga it’s a trick. Tricked into thinking we need them to exist. Tricked into thinking that my sister is a bitch.” Perhaps most impressively, this entirely-self produced masterclass remains powerful without encroaching on preachy. In a year highlighted by uprisings, Nickel Nine’s The Allegory acts as a subliminal guide to breaking the destructive cycle.
Lil Baby — My Turn
Lil Baby’s My Turn is a lyrical level up for the Atlanta, Georgia rapper. His delivery is as nimble as ever, flowing over each beat like a fountain full of words. But, it’s most interesting to hear him describe his struggles with stardom. On “We Should’’ featuring Young Thug, Lil Baby’s frustration with false adulation spills over. “No more fake text messages, leave ‘em all on read,” he raps. “And this game some bullshit, but they payin’ so I play it.” On “Emotionally Scarred,” he explains the life changes he was forced to make: “I never call myself a GOAT. I leave that up to the people. Everybody can’t go to the top, I had to leave some people.” The fabled “more money more problems’’ ethos rarely sounds this refreshing.
Lil Uzi Vert — Eternal Atake
Eternal Atake marks a triumphant return for Lil Uzi Vert. After multiple delays, the Philadelphia rapper finally pulled the trigger and the results were more than worth the wait. Conceptually the project is 16 tracks in length and sliced into three sections—Baby Pluto, Renji, and Lil Uzi Vert—each of which bounce between electro, trap, and a futuristic p-funk that feels like organized madness. But, the story here is Lil Uzi Vert’s deft as an MC. Where “Pop” is a synthed-out bar-fest loaded with riotous rhymes about debauchery, “I’m Sorry” is a self-aware ode to misleading a love interest. Eternal Atake is a testament to how much Vert’s matured both as a person and as an artist.
Mozzy — Beyond Bulletproof
Mozzy remains effortlessly poetic throughout Beyond Bulletproof, his sixth release in partnership with EMPIRE. The Sacramento impresario delivers combat or compassion with ease while claiming his place among top tier lyricists. He talks empathically about the loss of his grandmother, the pain of seeing his auntie addicted to amphetamines (“Overcame”), the challenges of being Black in America (“Unethical & Deceitful”), hiding his lean sippin’ from his audience (“I Ain’t Perfect”), and for good measure, enough rugged drug raps and coded confrontation to keep his core fans locked in. Beyond Bulletproof is one of the most well-rounded offerings of 2020 and a signal that Mozzy’s major commercial breakthrough lurks just over the horizon.