2020 was a rough year on many fronts, but one positive that came out of the chaos was all the incredible music that was released. From old school vets releasing big comeback albums, to newer artists establishing themselves in the history books, the new decade got kicked off with a bang. Keeping up with all the new music has been a challenge, with so many albums by reputable artists being released that not enough getting the time they deserve to be lived with. Nonetheless, while this blog may have gone quiet while COVID-19 killed the concert scene, the time was spent absorbing as much of the new music as possible. Like we always do around this time, here’s a look at my picks for the Top 20 Hip-Hop Albums of 2020!
*Click here to check out my countdown from 2019!
Big Sean – Detroit 2
Conway The Machine – No One Mourns The Wicked
Elzhi – Seven Times Down, Eight Times Up
Tech N9ne – EnterFear
Wrekonize – Pressure Point
20. The LOX – Living Off Xperience
The trio of Jadakiss, Sheek Louch and Styles P reunited to release their fourth album as a group, giving fans a new taste of everything they’ve been known to do over the past 20+ years. If you’ve been a fan of these vets, then you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Staying true to that New York style they came up in, The LOX deliver bar-heavy street raps over hard hitting beats from Scott Storch, Nottz, Statik Selektah, Large Professor, and Swizz Beatz, to name a few. Highlights include them reuniting with fellow Yonkers legend DMX for a feature that has him sounding back to form, and of course a collaboration with Griselda’s Westside Gunn & Benny The Butcher, who have been prominent this year. The album does have some RnB features from T-Pain and Jeremih that take away from the hardcore vibe, but overall it’s a solid effort from three emcees who are known to consistently deliver in one way or another.
19. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
Jay Electronica has been a shroud of mystery for the past decade. Since he signed to Roc Nation in 2010, it’s been a ten-year wait for fans to see the release of his major-label debut album. Now that it’s here, it isn’t quite what we expected, as while we do get to hear Jay Electronica showcase some incredible penmanship that got him signed in the first place, we also get a surprise, uncredited appearance from the legendary Jay-Z for almost half of the album. Making up at least 40% of the vocals, this feels like Jay-Z picking up the scraps of an unfinished project and rushing the release just so Jay Elec can have a “one-hot-album-every-ten-year average.” Lame jokes aside, the project still delivers, as Jay-Z backs up his GOAT status with the confidence you’d expect from him, and Jay Electronica just sounds poetically in-pocket reciting well-written raps next to the legend. While destined to be overhyped after the ten-year wait and now the 2021 Grammy nomination, Jay Electronica comes across as a humble poet who only wants to enjoy making the art without having the celebrity and fame that comes with it.
18. Krizz Kaliko – Legend
It’s good to have Krizz Kaliko back. Often being overlooked and underappreciated while being in the shadow of Tech N9ne, Krizz was on the verge of leaving Strange Music before he decided to renew his contract and release this album. After 2016’s more pop-oriented Go, Krizz Kaliko’s first album in four years has him returning to that aggressive Hip-Hop many of his Strange label mates are known for. The album is filled with mosh-pit starters as Krizz uses his wide vocal range in new ways, showing us why he’s considered an underground legend. With over 20 years in the game, moving the crowd comes second nature to this versatile vocalist, and this album shows he can come right back to hardcore Hip-Hop without losing a step. Be sure to check for these tracks in the mosh pit next time Tech N9ne & Krizz Kaliko go on tour together.
17. Logic – No Pressure
After what some might call a misstep with 2019’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Logic’s last and possibly final album actually works as a great comeback album. No Pressure sees Logic looking back on his legacy with many tie-backs to his 2014 debut Under Pressure, including revisited samples, rhyme schemes, and even interludes. Between the nostalgia of going back to his first album and the overall hunger to outperform as a lyricist, Logic is able to deliver a solid album that brings fans back full circle to the humble days of when he was an up-and-comer. When it comes to Logic’s legacy, the talent is all there, from the flow and breath control to the lyricism, to the production, but the one thing holding Logic back may also be the thing that he’s best at: reminding fans of all the other great artists that are more influential than him. If this is the end of Logic’s career as an emcee, he may go down as the ultimate fan-boy rapper, with most of his music being an ode to other artists.
Despite all the talent showcased on this album, you can’t help but notice how he’ll bite flows from Andre 3000, reference albums by Black Thought and The Roots in his lyrics, revisit a lyrical exercise done by Papoose, copy A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders Tour Guide interludes and make it blatantly list out MF DOOM, RZA and Kanye West among his influences. Even the move of calling this a retirement album (although he may return to wrap up The Incredible True Story timeline) is something Jay-Z made famous with The Black Album. No Pressure is a feel-good, positive comeback album for Logic that makes him a likeable character again, but it’s limited by the way it constantly reminds you of classic Hip-Hop moments without being classic itself.
16. ILL Bill – La Bella Medusa
An underground, hardcore legend, ILL Bill has been involved in various group and collaborative projects in recent times, but his latest solo album is one of the best projects he’s put out in years. Released around Halloween, La Bella Medusa has a dark, grimy feel to it that’s underground to the core. ILL Bill sounds more inspired and energetic than he’s been in recent memory, delivering more up-tempo flows that we’re not used to hearing from him. The album is also filled with dope collaborators whom ILL Bill has either rarely or never worked with before, like Tech N9ne on the fast-paced “Illest Killers,” Kool G Rap on “Chrissy Snow,” and Conway The Machine and Pharoahe Monch on “Be Afraid!”. Of course we also get new collabs with familiar names in Bill’s catalogue, including Vinnie Paz, Slaine, and Sabac Red, rounding out this action-packed album for all the hardcore heads.
15. Nas – King’s Disease
Whether you see him as underrated or overrated, Nas is one of those artists who can never fall off and always remains relevant. Now 14 albums into his career, this may not be anywhere near one of his top 5 best pieces of work, but it’s still good enough to get him another Grammy nomination and worthy praise as a lyricist. Often criticized for his dull beat selection, this is just Nas’ second album where the production was handled entirely by one producer, with Hit-Boy giving the project a cohesive sound throughout. Nas’ rhymes are as sharp as ever as he delivers mature content, reminiscing on his youthful days on some songs and rapping about business leadership and social justice in others. Nas is definitely one of Hip-Hop’s kings and he continues to hold himself up accordingly.
14. Public Enemy – What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?
With the fight to end systematic racism in full force during 2020, it only makes sense that Public Enemy reunited to release a new album for us to “Fight The Power” to. Their music has felt more important than ever this year, as they served up new protest songs to fit the climate perfectly. From attacking President Trump over Preemo production on “State of the Union (STFU)” to mourning lost ones on “Rest In Beats,” Public Enemy does what they’re best known for throughout the project, delivering songs to uplift the people. The 2020 remix of their 1990 classic “Fight The Power” is a must for Best-of-2020 playlists, as Chuck D unites with Nas, Black Thought, Rapsody and YG to deliver another anthem for the year and show that Public Enemy’s classics still resonate 30 years later. Other highlights include the living members of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys uniting over classic 1980’s-sounding production on “Public Enemy Number Won,” and the Cypress Hill collab on “GRID.”
13. Westside Gunn – Pray For Paris
The Griselda movement is still in full effect. After releasing the group album WWCD along with two solo albums last year, Westside Gunn kept his foot on the gas, this being just one of three new solo albums released in 2020. Pray For Paris is Westside Gunn on his fly ignorant shit, drawing inspiration from that Raekwon/Ghostface pocket of Wu-Tang to somehow sound both grimy and majestic at the same time. Out of the three albums released this year, this feels like Westside Gunn at his most comfortable, collaborating with his usual Griselda members and affiliates Conway The Machine, Benny The Butcher, Boldy James and Keisha Plum, as well as underground peers like Freddie Gibbs and Roc Marciano. Less frequent Griselda collaborators like DJ Premier, Joey Bada$$, and Tyler, The Creator (providing both raps and production) make meaningful contributions to the album, which overall is a smooth listen from beginning to end.
12. Westside Gunn – Who Made The Sunshine
After releasing several projects independently through Griselda Records, Westside Gunn finally made his Shady Records debut in 2020. This one is a bit more experimental than what we usually get from Gunn, but one thing that remains consistent with him is that he’s great at making dope collaborations happen. Along with the usual Griselda crew making their features, Westside Gunn also brought Slick Rick out of retirement for two songs, and also got to work with legends Busta Rhymes and Black Thought on this album. While most of the production on this album is done in-house by Daringer, Beat Butcha and The Alchemist, one highlight of the year has to be the album’s closer “98 Sabres,” which sees Just Blaze step out of his pocket to provide a grimy yet hype beat for the core Griselda crew to rap over. Another dope highlight has to be ConductorWilliams’ mind-bending production on the 8-minute long cypher track “Frank Murphy,” just bars over an obscure loop with no drums – unheard of for a major-label debut album.
11. Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide
For me personally, this was admittedly my first time listening to an Aesop Rock album. Starting with his eighth album and not having much context from his older works, this was still a very enjoyable listen. With the concept of being a tour guide through the spirit world, Aesop Rock brings you into his world with some epic Sci-Fi production reminiscent of the style his former label mate El-P used to use when he was a solo artist. Known to be a rhyme-heavy lyricist, Aesop kills every verse with creative wordplay and rapid-fire flows. Producing and writing every track himself, Aesop Rock keeps the album’s concept tightly tied together for a cohesive, smooth experience throughout. This is one of the most unique, original sounding albums of 2020.
10. Tobe Nwigwe – Cincoriginals
For many, Tobe Nwigwe may have been unknown and unheard of until 2020, when he released the fifth album in his “Originals” series. While he appears to have been killing it in the Houston underground for years, this album brought all the added attention with the major guest features. For fans of complex, rhyme-heavy lyricism, Tobe’s song “Father Figure” reuniting Black Thought and Royce Da 5’9″ had to be a highlight of the year. This is the song that drew me in, and the rest of the album is filled with trunk-rattling heat that’s true to that Texas Hip-Hop culture. Along with a co-sign from Houston legend Bun B, the album also has features from notable lyricists Cyhi the Prynce, EARTHGANG, Big K.R.I.T., and D-Smoke, among others, and Tobe is able to hang with all of them. The album does get dragged down a bit by some amateur guest acapella freestyles, but the beats and the energy on the actual songs more than make up for this. Give this a listen if you’re looking for a fresh new artist.
9. Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By
While Eminem may never recapture that magic he had between 1999-2003, his latest string of albums released have been continuous improvements over each other. We’ll give a shoutout to Side B since it’s still a fresh new release from a couple weeks ago, but the original Side A of this album appears to be widely underrated among heads. There are a few missteps that drag the album down, like the mediocre Young M.A. verse on the second track, and the romantic songs not fitting the murderous tone of the album, but there are plenty of great moments that outweigh these. Highlights include Black Thought and Em going toe-to-toe on “Yah Yah,” every Royce Da 5’9″ verse, and reuniting three quarters of Slaughterhouse on the album’s closer. As for Shady himself, he’s sounding more in his comfort zone and not forcing as much buffoonery just to keep a rhyme pattern going (although it still happens in some parts of Side B). He showcases incredible breath control and flows perfectly in-pocket on a lot of these tracks, still delivering top notch rhymes as usual.
8. Benny The Butcher – Burden of Proof
This is a collaboration between two artists on incredible runs. Between producing entire albums for Big Sean, Nas, and now Benny The Butcher, Hit-Boy had himself a great 2020. Meanwhile, Benny The Butcher capitalized on the momentum himself and Griselda are currently on to drop one of the hottest albums of the year. The only downside to having the entire album produced by Hit-Boy is that it lacks that grimy, hardcore vibe that Benny and Griselda are known for, but it does show Benny’s versatility to be able to rap over these beats and still sound authentic. With much of the inspiration coming from older Jay-Z albums from the 90’s, even bringing back that classic “okay, I’m reloaded!,” Benny continues to appeal to fans of classic Hip-Hop focused on sharp lyricism, while still appealing to a mainstream pallet. Hearing Benny The Butcher rap over more polished production is cool, but we anticipate a return to the grimy Griselda sound in the future.
7. R.A. The Rugged Man – All My Heroes Are Dead
R.A. The Rugged Man may only appear once a decade to drop a new album, but whenever he does, he usually has the whole underground behind him. This album is no different, as Rugged Man is still as sharp a spitter there is, and he makes some incredible collaborations happen that embrace Hip-Hop’s competitive spirit. Once again, he delivers the entire package throughout this body of work, with good balance between well thought-out concept tracks and just raw spitting. Between the incredible posse cuts, the back and forth rhyming with single emcees, and the true solo tracks, Rugged Man shows that he can do it all. Highlights include bringing together members of Wu-Tang with Kool G Rap on “Dragon Fire,” the back-and-forth test of breath control with A.F.R.O. on “Gotta Be Dope,” and the incredible posse cut “The Slayers Club” uniting Brand Nubian, Onyx, M.O.P., Ice-T, Vinnie Paz, Chris Rivers and Chino XL. This is another classic for the hardcore underground heads.
6. Royce Da 5’9″ – The Allegory
After taking fans through his life story on 2018’s Book of Ryan, Royce Da 5’9″ has gained a confidence that we haven’t seen in his 20+ year career. For his follow-up to that album, The Allegory has him feeling that GOAT aura as he goes completely Zen and calmly bars out on every track. The Allegory is Royce at his most confident and taking the most risks, as it’s his first that he’s produced entirely on his own, and he pulls back on a lot of the ignorant punchlines and aggression he’s known for to deliver more intelligent content. The change in tone and pace may alienate some longtime fans, and while he still has some improvement ahead of him on the production side, the rhymes and the wordplay come second nature to him and he spits the flow so smoothly. Considering where Royce is in his career, this may be the most deserving to win out of the 2021 Best Rap Album Grammy nominees.
5. Busta Rhymes – Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God
Busta Rhymes first gained experience in carefully curating a sequel to a longtime classic album when he helped executive produce Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II in 2009, and you can tell that experience helped him in crafting his own sequel to his 1998 album Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front. Similarly to Cuban Linx II, Busta Rhymes’ ELE 2 took years to create, and you can tell a lot of thought was put into every track to bring a balance between old nostalgia and new flavor. While Busta Rhymes does collaborate with newer artists like Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Rapsody, and Rick Ross, the highlights on this album have to be all the ways he references older classics and flips them into new joints. He got M.O.P. referencing “Ante Up” on “Czar,” Bell Biv DeVoe referencing “Poison” on “Outta My Mind,” and he brought back Mariah Carey for a remixed beat from “I Know What You Want” for the new “Where I Belong.” Busta Rhymes touches on all aspects of his game throughout this album and gives the fans everything, from the hardcore Wu-Tang vibes on the ODB-assisted, Nottz-produced “Slow Flow” to the pure dancehall chune “The Don & The Boss” with Vybz Kartel. It’s safe to say Busta is back and he’s as hungry as ever.
4. Black Thought – Streams Of Thought Vol. 3: Cane & Abel
The third installment in his Streams of Thought series is the longest Black Thought solo album to date, and yet it clocks in at just 35 minutes. While some albums on this list tend to drag on a bit too long, the shorter length on this one allows Black Thought to stay on point and keep your attention for the entire project. As he’s been doing for years now, Black Thought kills every verse and flows perfectly in-pocket over every kind of beat thrown at him. Each volume in the SOT series has been handled entirely by one producer, and this third installment has Sean C lacing Black Thought with a diverse set of beats that effectively allow him to show off his versatility as an emcee. From the hype “Good Morning,” to the smooth “Quiet Trip,” Black Thought reigns supreme yet again when it comes to all technical aspects of rapping.
3. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
Out of the 2021 Best Rap Album Grammy nominees, Alfredo might be the most enjoyable listen from beginning to end. Another short project clocking in at 35 minutes, Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist keep you vibing for the entire project, as Al serves up a diverse range of beats for Freddie to eat up on the mic. Whether it stands up to Freddie’s previous albums produced by Madlib is another conversation, but The Alchemist did his thing on this one and brought that bounce that fits Freddie’s flows perfectly. Freddie Gibbs has been on an incredible run over the last few years and you could make the argument that he’s currently in his prime. The Grammys would be right to give him his praises and his flowers now.
2. Conway The Machine – From King To A GOD
You could make an argument for Conway The Machine being the lyricist of the year, as he made several features on other artists’ projects and released three of his own albums, killing every single verse. While many of his albums are less than half an hour and feel like short appetizers, From King To A GOD is a full length body of work that captures everything Griselda stands for. The album stays grimy and hardcore, with production primarily from Daringer and Beat Bucha, while also including select joints from DJ Premier, The Alchemist, Hit-Boy, Havoc, Erik Sermon, Khrysis, and Murda Beatz. In terms of rapping, the guest features are on point, with Griselda’s own Westside Gunn, Benny The Butcher, and Armani Caesar of course making appearances, as well as a monster verse from Method Man, and dope features from Freddie Gibbs, Flee Lord, and a rare appearance from G-Unit’s Lloyd Banks. Conway The Machine of course keeps up with all of them, and delivers both meaningful content criticizing police violence as well as raw battle raps with lyrical precision.
1. Run The Jewels – RTJ4
If they weren’t already there, 2020’s RTJ4 put Run The Jewels in the conversation for best rap groups/duos of all time. Their fourth album saw Killer Mike & El-P focus in on the rage and criticism called for in the year 2020. With fewer dick jokes and more middle fingers aimed at the government, this album arrived at the right time, giving the world the right music to go with the widespread protests against systematic racism and irresponsible policing. Obvious highlights include Killer Mike’s verse on “Walking In The Snow” breaking down in vivid detail the murder of Eric Garner (which happened to also apply to George Floyd’s murder even though the song was recorded months prior), and America’s systematic problems that lead to such murders, as well as El-P’s production style evolving to incorporate more traditional boom-bap throughout the album. After three classic albums, the anticipation was high going into Run The Jewels’ fourth album, and they delivered as expected.
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