2020 has been anything but an average year. It seemed 2020 was destined for greatness based off its number alone: the fact that we entered a new decade, as well as the fact that the first two digits of the year are identical to the second two digits– this only occurs once in a century. While these factors made it noteworthy, the year has turned out to be extremely monumental for other reasons entirely. Of course, it was kickstarted with the COVID-19 global scale pandemic, the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before. Now, we’re in the midst of socio-political upheaval, again, the likes of which we haven’t witnessed since the civil rights movement. All that to say, 2020 is one for the history books, and we hope, one that will result in a real, impactful change across both communities and governments.
Now, though, getting to our point: the music. As we enter 2020’s half-way mark, as unbelievable as that may seem, we’re taking some time to reflect back on all the albums we’ve received thus far. Instead of providing a countdown, we’ve asked each writer to simply pick their favorite albums in 2020, and write about each.
The albums are featured below, divided in sections according to the writer. Let us know your favorite projects from 2020 in the comments.
Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake (Deluxe)
The hype was most certainly there for Lil Uzi Vert’s second studio album Eternal Atake. After teasing the project for two years, the Philadelphia rapper experienced a slew of label-related issues, sitting on rap’s sidelines for a full year as fans begged him to find a way to release the long-awaited album. Finally, after signing a supplementary deal with Roc Nation, Uzi released Eternal Atake on March 6, 2020, marking a momentous occasion for the rapper and his supporters.
The eighteen-track display starts off with “Baby Pluto” before bringing us into the booming “Lo Mein,” “Silly Watch,” and “POP.” With one sole feature from The Internet’s Syd, the 25-year-old went about things solo and it masterfully paid off.
The sequel of “XO Tour Llif3” was not the only song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 from Eternal Atake. In fact, every single song appeared on the chart, kicking off the rapper’s dominant run, escalating further when Uzi released the deluxe version the week later.
The official deluxe edition of the album was packaged as Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World 2 and, while this fact has been disputed by the artist’s diehard fans, it’s arguably just as effective as Eternal Atake in delivering the message that Uzi is one of the most accomplished and talented rap stars of our generation.
Fourteen extra songs followed up the 2016 project perfectly and, this time around, Uzi brought all of his friends to the party. The deluxe edition features Chief Keef, 21 Savage, Future, Gunna, Young Thug, Lil Durk, NAV, and more. He stole the spotlight for a second straight week, spoiling his rival Rich The Kid’s album drop and commandeering the charts once again.
Like the regular edition, each one of the deluxe’s new songs charted on the Billboard Hot 100, giving the Philly mainstay some bragging rights as he remains the artist with the most entries on the chart this year with 35 so far. A good chunk of these songs will live on as stand-outs for years to come, including “Moon Relate,” “Myron,” “P2,” “You Better Move,” “That Way,” and “Futsal Shuffle 2020.”
Eternal Atake is everything that fans were hoping for, truly making up for an unforced hiatus that had social media in shambles for twenty-four months. Uzi’s hitmaking ability shined through and he proved that he could go about things by himself when he needs to.
– Alex Zidel
Lil Baby – My Turn
Lil Wayne named Lil Baby his favorite rapper of the moment and a big part of why he’s earned so much of the legend’s respect is because of My Turn.
When the Atlanta upstart announced his new album, it had been a year since his last full-length project, Street Gossip, and the fans were hungry. He had a very clear vision in creating My Turn. No pun intended but you could tell that he genuinely had something to prove this time around. Baby was sick of being “lil boy’ed” by powerful men around him. He wanted to show the world that he’s one of the biggest names in music and he should be respected as such.
With his first-ever #1 album on the Billboard 200, Lil Baby accomplished his goal.
The 25-year-old set out to get more personal in his music, opening up for the world to embrace his story. He definitely achieved that, with standout songs like “Emotionally Scarred” allowing Baby to display his heart on his sleeve.
The emotion and vulnerability that he delivers on “Emotionally Scarred” makes it one of his top songs ever, and it also proves that Lil Baby is way more than just a street rapper. When he realized that he could show his true colors after the success of “Close Friends” in 2018, he renewed the formula with tracks like “Catch The Sun.”
On top of all that, he even tapped into the all-important TikTok market with “Woah,” which was a viral dance success.
You may think that, by striving for so much, My Turn would sound like it’s all over the place. However, the reality is quite the opposite. The album sounds complete and comprehensive. It’s not perfect. There is some filler. But Lil Baby did what he set out to do, reaching the next level of rap superstardom.
Behind the scenes, the rapper has additionally been working to become the next rap mogul of his generation — think Jay-Z level. With a couple of artists signed to his 4PF imprint, Baby got the chance to display them at their best on My Turn. 42 Dugg stole the show on “Grace,” and he’s enjoying tons of solo success as a result. Rylo Rodriguez also stood around the same height as his mentor on “Forget That.”
The first twenty songs that were presented as part of My Turn’s release — and the six that were added later for the deluxe edition — contain some records that will become staples in Lil Baby’s career discography. Tracks like “Sum 2 Prove,” “No Sucker” with Moneybagg Yo, and “Get Ugly” are all some of Baby’s best songs to date.
We wouldn’t be surprised if this remains one of the best albums of the year once December comes around.
– Alex Zidel
Roddy Ricch – Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial
Okay so, technically, Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial wasn’t even released in 2020. However, the fact that it dropped in December 2019 made it ineligible for our Albums Of The Year list at the time, so we’re giving it some love here.
One could confidently say that there are no bad songs on Roddy Ricch’s debut album. If the 21-year-old recording artist from Compton, California set out to make an instant impact in the rap game with this album, he over-exceeded his own expectations. These days, Ricch is seen as one of the leaders of the new generation of hip-hop and it’s all from this album’s success.
The insanely enjoyable body of work begins with an intro track, which could honestly have been the lead single for this project. That’s how good it is. Then, we drive right into the late-blooming #1 single of the year, “The Box.” “The Box” wasn’t a hit right off the bat. It took a while for the kids on TikTok to realize how genius Roddy’s vocal work and production were on the obvious banger. However, once it blew up, it stayed there and it remains a staple of the Billboard Hot 100’s coveted Top 10 to this day.
Start Wit Me” with Gunna served as the perfect early single, “Perfect Time” showed off some of Roddy’s expert vocal crafting, and “Moonwalkin” with Lil Durk is a perfect ode to his jewelry and girls. For his first album, Roddy came out of the gates sprinting. He refused to be considered a slow-burner. While PEMFBA will remain in the rotation for years, the 21-year-old wanted to open up and show a side of himself that would be difficult through singular efforts. He ended up doing so with seamless transitions and an album that could be up for some mixing and mastering awards.
Songs like “War Baby,” “Roll Dice,” “Gods Eyes,” and more all show us how much pain Roddy has had to deal with throughout his short life. The obstacles have never subsided — they’re just a little easier to deal with now that he’s got millions of dollars.
Because of this album, Roddy Ricch is seen as one of the current best in the game and, in a few years, he has the chance to become one of the greats of this generation. Because of that, he’s a lock for our Albums of the Year (So Far) list.
– Alex Zidel
Mac Miller – Circles
As far as posthumous albums go, this one hit especially hard. As we all know, Mac died from a drug overdose on Sept 7th, 2018, a little over a month after Swimming, his last album to drop during his lifetime, was bestowed upon us. Completed by producer and composer, Jon Brion, who had been working with Mac on the project up until his passing, Circles served as a companion album to Swimming, carrying on in the same musical direction as its predecessor. Almost entirely abandoning the rap sensibilities he’d been slowly shedding or, better yet, reimagining his entire career, Circles still sees Mac adopting the same slurred, dreary, twangy vocal delivery he’d come to perfect in his most genre-fusing music to date. Circles encapsulates exactly what we might have expected the final step of his transition from frat boy rapper to well-rounded, dynamic hip hop artist to sound like, if there had to be such a conclusive destination.
It’s impossible, though, to escape the truth that Mac is no longer with us when listening to Circles. Themes of death are ever-present, to a degree of self-awareness that, at-times, verges on foreshadowing—or, at the very least, an understanding that what was to come, could very well come. Despite how certain lyrics like “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old” or “Things like this ain’t built to last/I might just fade like those before me” almost feel like messages of hindsight from beyond the grave, Circles is not entirely—or, even predominantly—consumed with impending morbidity. In fact, Mac seems to have been grappling with his struggles as though he believed there could be a light at the end of the tunnel after all, an optimism that will break your heart, but that ultimately offers some solace. “Some people say they want to live forever,” he sings on “Complicated.” “That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today.” We know he had hope despite his pain, and it’s reassuring that he was able to express that before he was gone.
As one of the earliest releases of the year, Circles was a comforting goodbye for fans of Mac who, considering how soon before his death we’d gotten Swimming, might have assumed with defeat that there was nothing left in the vault from the late and great artist.
Childish Gambino – 3.15.20
If this addition comes as a surprise to you, or if you’ve just been reminded that this album exists at all, or, perhaps, you didn’t even know Gambino had put anything out this year in the first place, you’re likely not alone. 3.15.20 was a surprise drop accompanied by an odd teasing method, and despite the collective confusion and immense intrigue this mini rollout caused for a brief moment, the album hardly made any noise after the fact. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthy of its place on this list.
Gambino first released 3.15.20 on the title date through an inconspicuous website called donaldgloverpresents.com before taking it down after only 12 hours. After a cryptic countdown appeared on the artist’s website, the album was officially released a week later, under Childish Gambino on streaming services, and Donald Glover Presents elsewhere. It’s these peculiar details—the manner of its release, the songs (save for two) named after their respective time stamps on the album, the title of the album itself often requiring a Google search to recall—that make 3.15.20 easily forgettable, even though the content of the piece itself is much more memorable.
Despite how unconventionally the project was packaged, these 12 tracks don’t exactly blend into one homogenous vibe, indistinguishable from one another, as you might expect; on the contrary, they each offer something different. We get frantic, passionate, unhinged Gambino (“Algorhythm,” and “53.49”); sweet, airy Gambino (“Time,” and “42.46,” previously released as “Feels Like Summer”); Gambino at his most evolved. We get introspective Gambino (“Grief is a standing ocean, I never swam unless you did”), philosophical Gambino (“To be happy really means that someone else ain’t,” “Bliss is a cheap emotion everyone here seems to afford”), conscious Gambino (“Summon the new edition, made it way too efficient/Made us the guinea pig and did it with no permission”). We get futuristic beats (“32.22”), catchy hooks (“35.31”), and bars on bars (“12.38”). We get 21 Savage and Ariana Grande and Legend Glover.
There’s something to dance to (“19.10”), something to cry to (“47.48”), and plenty that will make you think, or, at the very least, will linger in your mind for a minute or two. 3.15.20 was all the different stages of a psychedelic trip that never quite made sense of itself, but it worked. It had a little bit of everything, and it deserved more.
Jhené Aiko – CHILOMBO
When it comes to the contemporary crop of alternative R&B ladies, it’s impossible not to bring up Jhené Aiko, and unlike many of her peers, she’s been at this for a minute. With a handful of projects to her name, she has been honing her musical craft and tackling difficult subject matter all the while, and this occasion was no different.
CHILOMBO is post-breakup clarity on wax, and while the writing of this album was no doubt a therapeutic process for Jhené, it’s hard to approach the content objectively or separate her art from her widely publicized personal life when the “ex” in question is right there on the record. But that’s the beauty of Jhené: she’s never been one to steer away from this truth to appease the comfort of others, which is exactly while you’ll find a certain rapper featured on a certain song, almost as if to remind the listeners that, ultimately, it is none of our concern, either.
As a body of work, CHILOMBO is a beautiful space to sit in. Regardless of how much gut-wrenching heartbreak or devastation is seeped into the lyrical content, Jhené still manages to make each second feel soft and warm, almost liquid. CHILOMBO was criticized for being too much of the same, a one-note, never-ending tune. But Jhené’s become an expert at balancing the science of “good vibes” with brutal honesty at this point, and any attempt to hinder that only to end up with something disingenuous would’ve been a damn shame.
With Jhené, it’s never been a question of her vocal prowess, nor her ability to put her heart on her sleeve. She’s never had to arrive at either of these destinations—she was born there. She leads with unapologetic confidence at times (“B.S.,” “Surrender”), shameless vulnerability at others (“Triggered”, “10k Hours”), and coy seduction with the same ease (“P*$$y Fairy (OTW),” “Happiness Over Everything (H.O.E.)”). Jhené is unabashed wisdom, and always has been. CHILOMBO is just a reminder that we can still depend on her to deliver exactly what we need.
Don Toliver – Heaven Or Hell
Prior to his debut album Heaven Or Hell, Don Toliver had been making a name for himself thanks to a massive co-sign from Travis Scott. The Houston auto-tuned crooner was featured on “Can’t Say” off of Scott’s Astroworld and his ability to match La Flame’s melodic style had fans curious about what he could do on his own. Throughout 2019, Toliver came through with a bevy of singles such as “Can’t Feel My Legs” and “No Idea.” Much like his “Can’t Say” verse, Toliver was showing fans that he knew how to write a melody and that he was certainly one of the best up and comers in the genre.
Once Heaven Or Hell officially dropped back in March, it was clear that Toliver had arrived. On the intro track “Heaven Or Hell,” Toliver lets us know that he is a Travis Scott disciple through and through. There is a dark brooding beat that Toliver hums over while delivering his signature high-pitched vocal lines. The song sets the mood of the entire album as we are being brought into a world of drugs, money, women, and newfound fame. From there, the album spirals into a tale of a young man trying to find himself, while also fighting off temptations. In some ways, the album is like Travis Scott’s Rodeo which explores the same topics with a similar production philosophy.
Some of the standouts on this album are “Euphoria,” “Cardigan,” and the extremely catchy “After Party.” To say Toliver knows how to write a sticky hook would be an understatement. The Houston singer flaunts his vocal chops on these tracks and as you make your way through the tracklist, you quickly realize that Toliver is a versatile artist capable of singing over varied beats. Two great examples of this versatility are “Candy” and “Spaceship.” On the former, Toliver takes us through an auditory journey of pitch shifts and just overall madness. Meanwhile, “Spaceship” sees Toliver get just a bit more lowkey as he’s joined by the bombastic Sheck Wes.
While Heaven Or Hell isn’t perfect, it certainly leaves fans wanting more. It’s a savory project with tons of replay value and enough room for improvement to have his supporters excited for where he takes us next. With the support of one of the biggest artists in the world behind him, sky’s the limit for Don Toliver right now.
– Alex Cole
Future – High Off Life
When you think of the Mount Rushmore of trap music, one would have to assume Future would be there. At first, hip-hop fans were wary of Future and his output. Who can forget the first time they heard “Tony Montana” and were originally a bit confused about what they were listening to? Of course, over time, hip-hop fans became obsessed with Future’s melodic sensibilities and ability to write catchy hooks that could be repeated ad-nauseum. Over the years, Future has proven himself to be a consistent voice in the genre and when he drops an album, people pay attention.
With High Off Life, the stakes were high for Future. His previous project, The Wizrd, was praised by critics as an album that portrayed Future’s newfound maturity as a songwriter. However, fans seemed to dismiss it as there wasn’t a truly undeniable single that you could latch on to. In this world of short attention spans, viral hits are what stick and with High Off Life, it’s clear that’s what the Atlanta legend was aiming for.
The album starts out with a melodic banger in “Trapped In The Sun” which sees Future at his most focused. He has always been great with his intros and this particular track is absolutely no exception. From there, we see Future delving into shorter, more repetitive tracks that chase that viral feel. Perhaps the best examples of this are the incredibly dark “HiTek Tek” and “Ridin Strikers.” Meanwhile, the Travis Scott-assisted “Solitaires” is a masterclass in how you can mix both bars and melodies in a way that doesn’t seem contrived.
Future enlists the help of some of hip-hop’s most popular young artists on this album as he looks to relive the youthful exuberance of some of his early work. For instance, “Trillionaire” with NBA YoungBoy is a flexers anthem that is an instant add to any sort of “turn-up” playlist. We even get Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert on here just in case you were hoping for some high registers on the album. Of course, the true highlight of the album is a song that came out months ago. “Life Is Good” featuring Drake is an undeniable victory lap for both artists who have seemingly accomplished everything that is possible in music.
With High Off Life, Future gave us a little bit of everything and at this stage in his career, that’s all you can really ask of him.
– Alex Cole
The Weeknd – After Hours
Almost four years after the release of The Weeknd’s most polarizing project Starboy, fans were starting to get impatient. While My Dear Melancholy was a great appetizer, fans still wanted to see him drop a full-length project. Near the end of 2019, Abel began gearing fans up for such a release as he came through with the r&b trap banger “Heartless” and an 80s-inspired cut called “Blinding Lights” which went on to become a number one song in the world. The contrast of these two tracks had fans curious as to what the sound of the album would be. At the start of 2020, The Weeknd further confused fans with the 6-minute single “After Hours” which seemed to be a nod to his iconic and elusive Trilogy days. With these three singles in mind, it was clear that The Weeknd was about to surprise his fans with something truly special and in the end, that’s exactly what he did.
While fans will always love his mixtape-era, one could make the argument that After Hours is by far his best album when it comes to his pop output. On projects like Starboy and Beauty Behind The Madness, it felt like The Weeknd was scrambling to find a sense of cohesion. Those albums were all over the place and featured way too many low points when compared to the highlights. However, on After Hours, we have Abel at his most focused and consistent. You truly get a sense of the heartbreak The Weeknd is going through on this album as he reminisces about better times and the opportunities he lost due to his own selfish desires.
Production-wise, Abel takes big risks as he attempts to make himself the face of 80s revivalism. The aforementioned “Blinding Lights,” “Faith,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Save Your Tears” are all songs you would have expected to hear on MTV back some 35 years ago. It’s an album that tows the line between the future and the past in a way that most artists could only dream of doing. As for the vocals, well, this is The Weeknd we are talking about here. Whenever he starts to sing, you know it’s going to sound good and After Hours is no exception.
If Abel’s prior pop output had you feeling like he left you behind in 2012, After Hours will certainly reel you back in.
– Alex Cole
Kehlani – It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Everything about It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is a reflection of Kehlani’s personal experiences and the maturation that happens with these types of love-exploring exploits. Her love life has tested her repeatedly, and because of that, we’ve received some beautiful musical material that resonates with essentially any person who’s ever been in an unsuccessful or semi-successful relationship (so, everyone, ever). Not only that, but the music and the content feels genuine. SweetSexySavage, Kehlani’s debut album, was much like its title might indicate– a bit more childish in both sound and content. A bit more frivolous, and a bit more scattered. The theme itself of SweetSexySavage is vague enough to work regardless, yet, because of this, it’s also somewhat intangible in concept. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is the opposite– there is no misconstruing here. It’s a cohesive theme, a relationship timeline and a thrilling one that (but, maybe that’s because we know who the men in Kehlani’s life were/are, and the troubles they’ve caused have been publicly broadcasted– here’s to you, YG).
The emotional connection that Kehlani creates with this album helps pull the listener in and works for the album’s replay value– not to mention, the production. While her production team remains more or less intact from SweetSexySavage, this just means that they too have grown with Kehlani and influenced her sound (or vice versa). The beats are a little more forlorn, a little more sexy, and a little more jaded. This is all reflected in Kehlani’s music too, with the first song “Toxic” setting the tone for the album. The creeping, beeping beat adds to an ominous feeling, of the love-torn path we’re about to head down.
The album acts as a series of waves, to use the same term Kehlani has adopted for her music and fanbase. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, like any relationship, has its ups and downs. There are moments of quiet reflection, moments of loving embrace, moments of anger and agony. These moments are encompassed within the capsule of a singular song in the tracklist. When it all comes together, despite the role of a would-be lover playing in the back our minds, it is still a pure, unadulterated reflection of one person’s journey– that person is Kehlani.
JoJo – good to know
If someone would have told me many moons ago (aka 2004) that JoJo would have released one of my favorite albums of the year in 2020, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Alas, here we are and it is 100% true. The r’n’b singer who has been making a return into the public’s consciousness slowly but surely, released one of the tightest and most cohesive r’n’b albums of 2020.
good to know is almost verging on EP-territory with its 30-minute run-time and total of 9 records. Yet what makes the album so exciting is just how strong each song is, the playlist-like quality of it that sees each song subtly slide into the next, and the overall unskippable nature of each song. The production allows JoJo’s vocal prowess to be the singular star of the project, but the beats are modern and sleek enough to allow for earworm-like tendencies. Just as much as JoJo’s melodic refrains might play over in your head, and have you itching to hit the ‘replay’ button, so to is the production. With Doc Mickenny helping on that side, it’s easy to understand why– the Canadian producer has a history of making r’n’b hits, including with The Weeknd and Usher. JoJo herself is also behind the boards on six out of the nine songs– clearly she knows the sound she wants, and this may have helped with the overall consistency of the project. Her vision was embodied.
good to know is a quick traipse down JoJo’s memory lane, from attempted lovers to late-night hook-ups and friends with benefits, nothing is out of bounds for the singer to tackle. She speaks to those looking for love in all the wrong places, which is definitely quite a few of us. This is the type of album to play on a hazy Sunday morning, following a late night out, when you just want to detox, unwind, and reflect.
Gunna – Wunna
Gunna with the glow up. Well, not really a glow up as much as just a consistent output since he jumped into the game with Drip Season. While the two varieties of Drip series have given us quality releases, Drip Or Drown 2, Gunna’s debut studio album, didn’t seem to hit quite as hard as we would have liked. It felt a bit tired, and a bit too familiar– but Gunna made sure to remedy this with his sophomore album, Wunna.
Wunna is a series of hits where Drip or Drown 2 failed. It feels fresh and new; Gunna explores new sounds which may have been a result of his worldly travel as he created the album. Still, Wunna recalls some of Gunna’s most tried and true topics, of course, there is plenty of drip present (both in fashion-fueled references and overall style). However it’s a yet unseen side of Gunna that helps the album reach new heights– that being his optimistic encouragement to put the work in, and reap the rewards that will follow, on songs like “Do Better” and “Far” with Young Thug, some of the best records on the album.
Wunna is stacked, with 18 songs and appearances from YSL favorites like Lil Baby and Travis Scott, as well as YSL signees like Young Thug and Nechie. However if you make the mistake of falling off after the first half of the album– a problem that many artists encounter in the streaming era– you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Somehow, Gunna gives the middle finger to any imposed streaming “rules” (the kind that a label would push, such as front-loading an album), and saves some of the best gems on the album for the second half of the tracklist. “Met Gala” is the marker for when things get really interesting, leading into the ambitious two-parter “Nasty Girl / On Camera.”
One of the main throughlines on Wunna, apart from the rapper himself, is Wheezy’s production and guiding hand. Wheezy’s production appears on almost every single song, while he also acted as one of the executive producers of the album. It’s immediately clear, looking at the production credits, that this album owes a lot to Wheezy. The producer helped curate a serene, uplifting soundtrack for Gunna to glide and flex all over.
Wunna shows just how much of a problem Gunna could be for the rap game if he continues to evolve and grow– which we’re sure he will do with everyone in his camp rooting for him.
Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By
Eminem has been fielding criticism since first arriving to the game. On formative albums like The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and D12’s Devil’s Night, he initially seemed to covet hostility, deliberately provoking those of a delicate sensibility. The self-proclaimed “king of controversy.” Fast forward to the present day, give or take a few years. Eminem was on the verge of dropping Revival, an album under heavy scrutiny the moment the tracklist surfaced.
Fans had turned to haters, openly lambasting the legendary emcee, and it took a toll. The once confident rapper opened his album with one of his most vulnerable confessions in “Walk On Water,” only to have it belittled. “If you bitches are trying to strip me of my confidence, mission accomplished,” he rapped, a rare moment of weakness for the self-declared “Rap God.” It’s surreal to examine that particular period following the release of Music To Be Murdered By. Throughout his eleventh studio album, Em moves with a renewed sense of swagger, one likely fueled by a long-overdue reunion with Dr. Dre. His flows are sharp, his beat selection on point. Not since The Marshall Mathers LP has one of his solo albums boasted so many emcees on deck. And most importantly, it sounds like he’s having fun again.
Production-wise, Em has once again veered into the darker territory of the Relapse-era, particularly on the four Dre productions — all of which happen to be standout tracks. The onslaught of “Marsh,” “Never Love Again,” “Little Engine,” and “Lock It Up” should stoke the nostalgic whims of longtime fans, particularly those who appreciate Relapse. “Godzilla” not only pays homage to the late Juice WRLD, but serves as the most dazzling technical display Em’s delivered since “Rap God.” “Premonition” finds him channeling Kamikaze’s themes with a subtle dose of Encore’s aesthetic, an organic coalescence of Em’s many artistic eras. And perhaps most impactfully, Em allows himself to stand alongside some of the game’s elite lyricists; on tracks like “I Will” and “Yah Yah,” Slim trades bars with Black Thought, Q-Tip, Royce Da 5’9”, KXNG Crooked, and Joell Ortiz.
For so many fans who have remained loyal, Music To Be Murdered By felt like validation for the legendary emcee. A victory lap of sorts, proof that Em could not only adapt to the current hip-hop landscape, but thrive.
Westside Gunn – Pray for Paris
It’s always satisfying watching those who have hustled for years finally make it to the top. For Westside Gunn, such a trajectory was always inevitable. The Buffalo-bred curator slash visionary may have needed a while to set the board, but upon doing so he set forth his strategy with ruthless efficacy. Now, Gunn and his Griselda compatriots are breaking bread with the likes of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Drake, all while retaining the spirit once put forth by the legendary Raekwon and Ghostface.
This year, Westside Gunn came through with his most ambitious album yet in Pray For Paris, a successful union between his grimy musical aesthetic and his eye for haute couture. Boasting features from Conway The Machine, Benny The Butcher, Wale, Joey Bada$$, Tyler, The Creator, Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano, and more, Gunn’s album became an instant addition to the album of the year conversation. Concise in its arrangement and united by a carefully arranged lineup of instrumentals, the forty-one-minute album also serves as a polished showcase of Gunn’s capabilities as an emcee. Capabilities that all too often go unsung, especially when contrasted alongside his formidable crew-members.
On that note, Pray For Parisfeatures some of Gunn’s inspired rhyming to date, as he pushes himself to explore new flows and deftly fire off non-sequiturs — many of which circle back to the realms of wrestling and/or streetlit brutality. Though he would be the first one to admit to capping his writing sessions at a strict fifteen-minute maximum, part of his charm lies in his effortless nature, his ability to exude charisma without compromising on his artistic instincts. Songs like “George Bondo” pick up where What Would Chine Gun Do left off, while “Shawn Vs Flair” invites Gunn to try his hand at some Primo production, an honor reserved for the game’s top lyricists. The mere fact he sounds at home over such classy instrumentals speaks to his pedigree, even if his ambitions for rap greatness don’t follow those of Conway or Benny The Butcher. Still, Pray For Paris succeeds at every turn, a highly enjoyable dose of concentrated artful violence. Not to mention ad-libs — so many ad-libs.
Royce Da 5’9″ – The Allegory
Call it personal bias, but it seems that every time Royce Da 5’9” drops off an album, a lofty placement in the album of the year conversation isn’t too far behind. It doesn’t hurt that the Detroit lyricist has been riding a momentous creative wave, beginning with Layers, peaking with Book Of Ryan, and rounding out with his entirely self-produced The Allegory. Notable for being the most overtly political album of Royce’s career, it’s clear the project served as an outlet in a variety of different ways.
Anyone who follows Nickle can attest to his rising activism, his dedication to preserving and encouraging ownership within the Black community. It’s clear that these ideas helped lay the thematic foundation for The Allegory, beginning with the opening reflections on “Mr. Grace.” “In need of capital, in search of a loan and it’s a few bankin’ institutions who got the remedy,” he raps, part lyrical salvo and part spoken word. “But this is America, where credit is for the privileged and profit is not my amenity.” Even those who aren’t invested in Royce’s foray into socio-political territory can still find much to enjoy, as his diction remains one of hip-hop’s most impressive. “Listen n***a, this is The Iliad, flip the dollars for wealth until our figures resemble the myriad,” he raps, on the same track.
Though much can be made about Royce’s writing, which stands as the unapologetic as it’s ever been, it would be remiss to ignore his pivot into the production side. Under the tutelage of DJ Premier, Six July, and Denaun Porter, Royce sharpened his skills by crafting musical backdrops that inspired him. What he might lack in refinement he makes up for in a heightened sense of instinct, the ability to effectively become one with his beats. In other words, non-invasive backdrops for his numerous reflections, inspired by the foundations of boom-bap and rarely deviating beyond his comfort zone. Given everything currently transpiring in the world, it’s clear that Nickle foresaw the steadily rising tension and readied himself for the battle to come. As he continues to evolve as a spokesperson for Black Excellence, The Allegory feels more necessary than ever before.
Young Thug & Chris Brown – Slime & B
Undeniably, the joint project we didn’t know we needed was Slime & B. Young Thug and Chris Brown are formidable forces in their own right, but when they collided on their mixtape, it became clear that these two have a magical musical attraction. Fans were still reeling off the highs of Thugger’s So Much Fun and Brown’s Indigo—both of which came with even more impressive deluxe editions—so it was unsurprising that Slime & B was as masterfully crafted as it was.
These sorts of collaborative efforts aren’t anything new to Young Thug as we’ve heard him share the stage with Gucci Mane, Rich Homie Quan, Birdman, and Future. Chris Brown isn’t a stranger to joint projects, either, seeing as over the years he’s worked alongside Ray J, Tyga, OHB, and Section Boyz on various mixtapes. For Thugger and Breezy’s match-up, the two polarizing artists managed to create a record that balances the Atlanta rapper’s Down South trap-centered sound with Brown’s dichotomous flare of dance and smooth R&B. Some critics complained the Slime & B showed the two artists’ inability to mingle genres, but we’d have to disagree. When you have two artists who are known for their hit singles and club bangers, it’s expected that when they join forces, the world should receive an album filled with standouts. Yet, Slime & B seems more concerned with developing a fusion genre all their own. Thugger impresses while showing off his versatility on “Say You Love Me,” and the production on “Trap Back” is keenly a vibe that belongs to Thug and Brown alone.
Because of Chris Brown’s long list of accomplishments in his near-20-years in the industry, it’s assumed that he could have dominated Slime & B. Instead, Thug is equally-paired throughout the mixtape as he matched Brown’s delivery, flow, and energy the only way Thugger can. Slime & B has been hailed as a fan favorite and is considered one of the best mixtapes that each artist has released, but we’ll let you all debate that one. For now, we can only hope that Young Thug and Chris Brown have contemplated making Slime & B a series that continues on for years to come.
Tory Lanez – The New Toronto 3
We couldn’t approach a conversation about AOTY candidates without mentioning Tory Lanez. The Canadian superstar has managed to impress with every new project while improving upon each of his series. In 2019, his anticipated Chixtape 5 had fans revisiting some of their favorite classic R&B hits, but with this year’s The New Toronto 3, listeners were able to tap into a side of Tory Lanez that he had yet to explore creatively. Sure, his talents were on full display– he showcased his skills behind the booth and in front of the mic as he boasted about wealth and status, like on “Pricey and Spicy.” Yet, by the time we reach “P.A.I.N.,” we hear more from Lanez, when he shares childhood memories that may have been hard pills to swallow when he was a kid, but helped shape him into the hustler he is today.
For some, The New Toronto 3 can be seen as a mish-mash of the same ol’ topics: love, struggle, money, power, and the like. However, Tory manages to take a formula that has been ground into the depths of R&B and hip hop and make it his own, sharing his story in a way that is honest, authentic, believable, and often, unconventional. Fans take the journey with Lanez as he floats from songs like “Stupid Again” where he speaks about taking full advantage of all of the things his status can offer him, to “Broke in Minute” where he speaks on his rags to riches story that many aspire to becoming. His involvement in all areas of production is apparent, and it’s obvious that when it comes to his craft, Lanez won’t allow anyone to hold the reins on his future.
The album came amid Lanez’s highly publicized rift with former label Interscope. The now-independent artist made it clear that he was ready to move on from his relationship with the major, even saying that until The New Toronto 3‘s release, he felt he’s “had to dumb down [his] creativity.” There’s a method to his madness because the project earned Tory Lanez his third No. 1 album following 2016’s I Told You and 2018’s Love Me Now? Lanez has somehow mastered the art of outdoing himself with each new musical unveiling, but The New Toronto 3 is a considerable addition to this year’s noteworthy records that can’t be ignored.
Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist – Alfredo
This might be the mid-year editors’ picks but there’s hardly a doubt in my mind that Freddie Gibbs is aiming for AOTY for a second year in a row. Following the Madlib-produced Bandana in 2019, Freddie Gibbs’ entered the 2020s on a high note with his new project, Alfredo. Marking Alchemist’s third project of the year following Conway’s Lulu and Boldy James’ The Price Of Tea In China, Freddie Gibbs proves there are no limits to his skill set on their collaborative effort. It’s in part due to the fact that being tasked with working entirely on Madlib production has helped Gibbs quickly adapt to any style of production. Madlib challenged Gibbs in ways he hasn’t been tested in the past, though Alchemist is a chameleon in terms of his style. Alchemist produces a spacious canvas fitting for Gibbs’ dense storytelling and lyrical prowess. A soundscape that’s both hypnotizing and roomy enough for Freddie to contort his flow patterns and vocal tones in ways that we haven’t heard in the past, such as on “God Is Perfect.”
Gibbs has been championed as one of the few rappers keeping gangster rap alive during an era where it was seemingly fading away. Alfredo recruits a slew of artists that not only challenge his lyricism but work within his stylistic world. Conway and Benny The Butcher emerge into Freddie Gibbs’ cocaine-dusted lair with eerie tales of the dope trade. Tyler, The Creator takes a trip to the rose garden as he provides the assist on “Something To Rap About.” But perhaps, the most definitive track on the project is “Scottie Beam” with Rick Ross. Rozay delivers one of his best guest verses in recent times but it’s the timing of the song’s release that stands out the most. Following the tragic slaying of George Floyd, Gibbs kicks off the verse with timely bars as he raps, “The revolution is the genocide / My execution might be televised” that have since been used as signs at the recent protests.
Freddie Gibbs’ and Alchemist created a modern day masterpiece with Alfredo that inadvertently captures the social climate with a top-tier match up of elite bars and production. The numerous references to Jordan and The Last Dance throughout the project make two things crystal clear: Gibbs, too, kept himself occupied with the Netflix series and that he, too, strives to outperform his peers.
Pop Smoke – Meet The Woo 2
Meet The Woo 2 signified a huge moment in New York City and hip-hop as a whole. As Pop Smoke emerged as the most promising young voice out of New York City in recent years, he was tragically shot and killed days after the album’s release. Playing to his strengths, Meet The Woo 2 served as his debut and the only official studio album to his name. His deep, gruff voice became a vehicle to tell grim tales of the streets while the frantic drill production painted a picture of the chaotic environment that he describes.
But more than that, it’s a celebration of a young Black man who was finally elevating his way out of the streets to do something bigger. Much of the project faced criticism for its lack of diversity, though Pop Smoke’s most compelling characteristic was never just the sounds and the bar work. It was the energy that he was bringing to the game. At 20-years-old, he was propelling towards stardom at a rapid pace with artists like Travis Scott and Pusha T championing the gutteral sound. The bleak realities were juxtaposed with anthemic hooks and massive production that, if it were not for his death and COVID-19, would’ve rang off all summer across every festival stage. Even so, Pop produced records that have since soundtracked protests across America, specifically in his hometown of New York City.
Meet The Woo 2 is significant to 2020 in many ways, the most obvious being that it was Pop Smoke’s final album before his passing. But even beyond that, this album helped the sound behind the ever-bubbling Brooklyn drill movement influence the rap game at large.
J Hus – Big Conspiracy
Prison changes people in many ways. Some come out rehabilitated in a sense while others emerge even more paranoid of the system that trapped them in the first place. Upon his release from prison in 2019, J Hus was welcomed home with a warm embrace from Drake who brought him out on stage during his week-long residency at London’s O2 Arena. No one expected it, nor did anyone entirely know that he was out of prison, but the energy in the room, even through an iPhone screen, represented the anticipation that many had for the genre-defining artist. The release of Big Conspiracy arrived nearly 9 months after his release but it represented his mysterious and elusive nature within those past few months.
There’s paranoia sown into the theme of the entire project, whether J Hus is describing the way systemic oppression works in the UK or maneuvering through loyalty and ethics through the streets. That even extends to the reason why he was sentenced for carrying a weapon — out of paranoia that he could be targeted. Even though it is politically-tinged, there are moments of celebration. “Play Play” with Burna Boy parallel slick gun talk to J Hus’ bedroom antics. Truthfully, the sex talk gets even more vivid on songs like “Fortune Teller” and “Cucumber.” Reggae star Koffee teams up with Hus for a bass-heavy banger on “Repeat.”
Big Conspiracy is truly a timely title for an album released ahead of a global pandemic. But for J Hus, he managed to surpass the standards he set for himself on Common Sense by revitalizing the afroswing genre that he’s frequently credited with creating. Effortlessly bringing in elements of West African music and blending it with R&B, road rap, and grime, J Hus continues to push the envelope, even when he’s already blurred stylistic lines.