2020 was quite the unprecedented year for many reasons. A global pandemic, domestic social unrest and a wild election later, and it seems that we are finally ready to close the page on this year.
The music world, though greatly affected by the COVID pandemic, still managed to provide some groundbreaking and forward thinking albums that resonated with fans around the world. Rappers in their 30’s and 40’s that may have seemingly been past their prime showed the world that hip hop greatness is confined to no age. Some great young stars who showed promise left the world too soon, but not before giving us albums that showed a glimpse of their potential. And although music fans were forced to listen to these albums in settings of isolation, the forces of social media allowed the music community to stay connected even through these troubled times.
2020 in music has given us hope for what is to come in the coming decade. One can only imagine how much fun the first concerts and festivals will be once they return. There is much to look forward to in the music world, but before we do, let’s look back on the best albums that 2020 gave us (NOTE: this article emphasizes the rap/hip hop genre, but does not entirely exclude outside genres.)
Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able
At 49 years old, no one saw Black Thought coming with one of the year’s most lyrically driven albums. His lyricism has always been top tier, but to hear him continuing to dominate other MCs this far into his career is truly special. Tracks like “Thought vs Everybody” demonstrate not only his ability to combine a killer flow with insane rhyme schemes, but also highlights his perspective and insight on American society that is absolutely worth hearing. This album reminds the hip hop world that Thought is one of the greatest MCs to ever grip the mic.
Che-Noir, Apollo Brown – As God Intended
2020 was an amazing year for the Buffalo rap scene (more on that later), and Che Noir is just one of the many Buffalo rappers to leave their stamp on the year. Her flow and lyricism pair perfectly with the production provided by Detroit based producer icon Apollo Brown, and the combination of gritty and soulful production compliments Che’s strengths very well. Like Thought, Che has unique insight that is illuminating, and her album highlights a different perspective than most rappers possess.
Aminé – Limbo
Portland, Oregon is not known for its rap scene, but perhaps that will change in the coming decade, as Aminé (and others) have begun to put Portland on the map within the hip hop world. Limbo could serve as a breakout moment for the young rapper, as the album demonstrates his versatility as an artist, as well as his infectious energy and charisma. The variety of production styles showed listeners that Aminé is capable of a lot as an artist, and big things are expected from him in the future.
Conway The Machine – From King To A GOD
Another Buffalo product, Conway The Machine proved his skills are just as potent as 38 years old as the younger MCs. It is no secret that Griselda, the Buffalo based label founded by Westside Gunn (Conway’s brother), had an amazing 2020, and Conway was a big reason for their success. His gritty style is representative of the grimy yet lyrically driven style that has emerged from Buffalo, and specifically Griselda, and his slower flow is bolstered by top tier lyricism across the album. Conway will continue to assert his dominance in the rap game, along with the rest of Griselda.
Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Even in 2020, Tame Impala’s sound is stunningly unique. An effortless blend of house, rock, funk and some other psychedelic elements, Kevin Parker (the single mind behind Tame Impala) has been able to create his own style that has yet to be mimicked. The Slow Rush may not have been quite as groundbreaking as some of his past albums, but Parker still continues to show his extremely high level of music understanding. Tame Impala continues to set the standard for genre fluidity, as their sound truly does not fit in any traditional genre definition.
Run The Jewels – RTJ4
Few artists were able to capture the disorder, unrest and tension that many felt throughout 2020 quite like Run The Jewels. Their fourth album named after their likeness not only continued to showcase the unique production of EL-P and the lyrical potency of both EL-P and Killer Mike, but it also contained many of the year’s best bars regarding the political and social turmoil that gripped America during the past year. This album will surely be remembered as a reflection of the chaotic year that 2020 was, while the content of the lyrics will only become more important over time.
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
Jay Electronica may have waited until he was 44 years of age to drop his debut studio album, but it did not disappoint. Electronica’s lyricism, as usual, is on full display, while the production behind him is as varied as it is unique. Although he was not given any feature credits, Jay-Z makes his presence felt all across the album, while not taking any of the spotlight away from Electronica. Despite the variety of production on the album, Electronica always manages to flow with ease over the beat, as his powerful lyrics drive the project forward. Like his previous music, this album will surely age well, as Electronica’s unique perspective is as important a voice in hip hop as any.
The Weeknd – After Hours
The Weeknd receiving zero Grammy nominations for After Hours should be considered criminal. He not only managed to display his beautiful falsetto voice, but he also did so across a wide variety of spacious production. Whether he is considered to be an r&b or pop artist, there is no denying that after this album, The Weeknd deserves the respect and attention of other major pop artists. His hit-making ability and soaring vocals are both on full display, while the production only elevates the Weeknd’s performance on this album. This album all but cemented The Weeknd’s place as one of the most iconic artists on the planet.
Nas – King’s Disease
At 47 years old, most people assumed Nas’ best music was all behind him. But while King’s Disease may not be Nas’ best work, it certainly marked an important comeback for the hip hop legend. Back by executive production from Hit-Boy, the pairing of Nas’ insightful lyricism with more modern production was a recipe for success. Nas is able to shed light on important issues regarding race and gender in America, while Hit-Boy allows the production behind him to both add musical elements to the album without taking anything away from Nas’ message. Backed by features from artists young and old, Nas’ lyrics remain some of the most important within the hip hop space.
Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, 9th Wonder – Dinner Party
This collaboration album has not been appreciated enough, and hopefully it will get the respect it deserves over time. A collaboration featuring perhaps the greatest saxophone player on the planet (Washington), one of the great modern jazz keyboardists (Glasper) and a jazz multi-instrumentalist and hip hop producer extraordinaire (Martin) would be significant enough, but add a hip hop producer legend like 9th Wonder to the mix, and you really get something special. The album feels both like a beat tape ripe for fresh bars, as well as a musical experiment, and the combining elements of jazz and hip hop blend beautifully together. This album could be a sign for how production might sound moving forward, which is a push back toward acoustic instruments and musical elements embedded into production.
Mac Miller – Circles
Although the great Mac Miller passed away more than two years ago, that loss can still be felt today. Anytime Circles gets played, it is impossible not to think of the promising future Miller had built for himself, let alone his musical potential fully exploding. The album shows Miller transition from simply a rapper to an artist, and while he has shown his ability to stretch beyond rap in the past, Circles felt like the full culmination of his abilities as a rapper meeting his ambitions as an artist. The album is a tragic yet beautiful reminder of how much left Miller had to give the world, both musically and personally.
Westside Gunn – Pray for Paris
Griselda founder Westside Gunn may have been 38 when he dropped Pray for Paris, but the skills he displayed on the album far exceeded any expectation for what people may have expected. Gunn’s raw lyricism and slow, deliberate flow pair perfectly with the gritty production across the album, and with strong features from fellow Griseldians Conway The Machine and Benny The Butcher, Gunn showed the hip hop world that people needed to pay attention to what is happening in Buffalo. Gunn’s ability to combine aspects of high society with its dark underbelly is a unique perspective that serves as a great commentary of our world that is absolutely worth listening to.
Benny The Butcher – Burden of Proof
Yet another Griselda signee to appear on this list, Benny The Butcher’s dynamic flow and fiery lyricism was on full blast on Burden of Proof. Unlike some of the other Griselda artists album’s, Butcher, backed with Hit-Boy production, favored a more soulful approach to the production on this album, and his skills effortlessly translated to this different style of production. Although Benny was backed by strong features from Rick Ross, Freddie Gibbs, Lil Wayne and others, Butcher still shines above the rest, and like his fellow Griselda artists, showed the world that Buffalo is doing big things in the world of hip hop.
Boldy James, The Alchemist –The Price Of Tea In China
Detroit native was 38 at the time he dropped The Price Of Tea In China, and like his fellow Griselda rappers (yes, Boldy another Griselda product), he proved that his age was no indication of his abilities on the mic. Boldy’s precise flow pairs perfectly with his dark, gritty lyricism, and The Alchemist gives Boldy the perfect production for him to spit over. Boldy’s ability to bring his real life experiences to the forefront of his raps is on full display on this album, while the production allows Boldy’s lyrics to have even more weight and meaning. Few rappers can bring in the listener to their world the way Boldy can, as we will see once again.
Freddie Gibbs, The Alchemist – Alfredo
Another 38 year old rapper making big moves, Freddie Gibbs has shown that he has aged quite like fine wine, and this album is further evidence of his abilities. His rapid flow was backed perfectly by The Alchemist’s production, as the producer can perfectly fit the production to fit the ability of the rapper. Gibbs has never stuck to the traditional methods of doing things within the music industry, and with Alfredo, Gibbs has demonstrated that following one’s own path and convictions can result in success, even with the odds against one’s favor. Gibbs brings a luxury to coke rap that makes each and every song an enticing listen, both for the lyrics and production.
Boldy James, Sterling Toles – Manger on McNichols
Boldy James clearly had an amazing 2020. All of the things that made The Price Of Tea In China great are amplified on Manger on McNichols. The production is as free flowing and spontaneous as a jazz performance, while Boldy fully opens up his vulnerability and inner turmoils on the album. The loss, hardships and tragedy that Boldy raps about on the album are universal to any listener, as his emotion allows the listener to fully relate and sympathize to Boldy’s struggles. Moreover, the production is among some of the most unique of any hip hop album maybe ever, as the production at times sounds more like a jazz club than a rap beat. This unlikely combination of raw, revealing bars over musically charged production works way better than anyone could have expected, and understanding the beauty of this album is understanding the beauty of Boldy’s rap ability and lyricism, as well as the beauty of spontaneity of music as well as of diversity of instrumentation. Hats off to Boldy James for having a hell of a 2020.