With 2020 on lockdown, at least MCs still have their game locked down. From the outset of the new year, there was uneasy feeling of impending dread. We have all been witness to tragedies ad nauseam. So it is appropriate that many of this year’s best hip-hop albums reflect the intensity of our collective anguish, as hip-hop continues to embrace discussions on mental health and societal disfunction.
Let this be a palate-cleanser for this bizarre and chaotic year, which included Kanye West’s embarrassing bid for the White House and that lightning-in-a-bottle Travis Scott/McDonald’s collaboration. Here are the best of the best—from the high-profile to the low-key—with each delivering nuanced, insightful observations and critiques of the state of the world or an introspection into the artists themselves.
If home is where the heart is, there are a lot of big hearts occupying Motor City. Detroit 2 is a deconstruction of the town that built Big Sean into the superstar he is today. He explores label and management conflicts, as well as other MCs who he’s found himself both on good terms with and rivals—such as his analysis of being caught between Kanye West and Jay-Z.
Favorite Line: “Conflicted like bein’ signed to Ye and managed by Jay/ Conflicted like bein’ Pusha and Drake.” — “Guard Your Heart”
The distinguished U.K. grime rapper’s newest release is as an example of London’s ever-growing and thriving hip-hop scene. Dizzee seldom spares a moment to breathe as each song is packed to the brim with hard-hitting bars spit over infectious and aggressive arrangements. Fuzzy synths dominate the beginning half, taking on the styles of Kid Cudi—which in hindsight would make for an excellent collaborative project.
Favorite Line: “I stay ready, so I ain’t gotta get ready/ It ain’t even necessary, I’m a vet, you’re a veggie/ Me and Reggie been steady since Matthew Kelly and Gino Ginelli/ There was only five channels on the telly.” — “Eastside”
Busta Rhymes proclaimed on the first Extinction Level Event album a vision of an imminent cataclysmic disaster—then he dropped ELE2 to inform all of us that he told us so. That said, who else would be capable of bringing along a haymaker of verses as a send-off to the metaphorical (if hyperbolic) “end of the world” scenario? Old fans will rejoice to witness the return of one of hip-hop’s all-time greatest over some of the finest boom-bap beats produced this year.
Favorite Line: “When I arrive, my theme music got a pound to it/ And when I leave, even my shadow got a sound to it/ ‘Cause I’m the god of the harder, the martyr, the father/ I spit a saliva that’s leaking a lava.” — “Look Over Your Shoulder”
Megan Thee Stallion is coming to prove her status as a legend-in-the-making, between her impressive creative output and dedication to realizing her artistic vision. In spite of the hardships she faced in 2020, she committed to a positive outlook on Good News. Her sex-positive, feminist and subversive style to songwriting is both fun and thought-provoking—providing punchy bars over booming instrumentation destined to be played at the club when the pandemic is over.
Favorite Line: “I don’t want you on the bench, believe you wouldn’t’ve been invited/ And if it weren’t for me, same week, you would have been indicted.”—”Shots Fired”
16. Aminé – Limbo
Many new rappers jump at the chance to brag about their success—expensive cars, gold chains, mansions and so on. Not Aminé, who takes a decidedly candid look inward at how success how shaped his life now and looking ahead. He weighs on issues of rejection, complications of being in an interracial relationship and becoming a parent, all while paying his respects to hip-hop legends. Combining an array of flavors between hyphy, boom-bap and trap instrumentation, there’s certainly something for old and new heads alike.
Favorite Line: “A lot of y’all fake flex — that is not your necklace/ And that whip ain’t yours — that’s the IRS’/ I’m bigger than Texas, me and God text message/ Y’all see how easy lyin’ is, it’s easy to forget this.” — “Shimmy”
15. Backxwash – God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It
Montreal-based rapper Backxwash’s God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It is a prime example of the evolution of hip-hop toward a more industrial, punk and experimental phase. The record encapsulates the turmoil of coming-out in an openly hostile world, full of religious and political demagogues who sew bigotry among their congregations. So it’s fitting to see her embrace occult elements alongside a bleak and ominous soundscape that is guaranteed to put listeners on edge.
Favorite Line: “‘Cause it’s politicians politicking and I’m thinking/ “Lord has witness, cost of giving” and I say/ “Oh, I think it’s so ridiculous that money fits in Holy Scriptures.” —”Amen”
14. Bambu – Sharpest Tool in the Shed
Bay-Area-based underground legend and Killer Mike collaborator Bambu released a short yet concise critique of the 2020 political landscape on Sharpest Tool in the Shed. Jazz influences give the album a gritty aesthetic, paired with socially conscious lyrics that would give Immortal Technique a run for his money as the resident hip-hop hardcore leftist. Bambu wastes no time criticizing the everything from the fascistic practices of ICE to police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Favorite Line: “When the school said no diploma I said ‘fuck you too’/ I’m what happens when the teacher kicks the kid out the room/ He goes study by himself and how the school systems built/ And it was built to build the laborers with physical skill/ The way public schools are moving, students are improving/ They went to build the prisons, guess who finna move in—You.” — “Duckin’ ICE”
13. Nas – King’s Disease
Jay-Z’s 4:44 saw him establish himself as a beacon of wisdom in hip-hop, considering the premier status he enjoys. Nas similarly postures himself as a fountain of knowledge for others to drink from on King’s Disease. He weighs the significance of the era and city that created him, his wealth and success, as well as politics and relationships. The reunion of his crew The Firm (AZ, Foxy Brown, and Cormega) on “Full Circle” was highly anticipated.
Favorite Line: “I used to run the block, now I’m in corporate/ Hoppin’ out, you know it’s son when the doors lift/ Whole squad hide the burners/ Mets hats in the sky like Bobby Shmurda.” — “Spicy”
Before Run the Jewels and before Rage Against the Machine, there was Public Enemy. Chuck D, Flavor Flav and DJ Lord are still at it all these years later—delivering a protest album that tackles our technologically dependent and increasingly authoritarian world. With plenty of new songs to kick it with—as well as a remix of “Fight The Power” featuring Black Thought, Nas and Rapsody—the group maintains its significance in the political sphere of hip-hop.
Favorite Line: “White House killer, dead in lifelines/ Vote this joke out, or die tryin’/ Unprecedented, demented, many president’d/ Nazi gestapodictator defended…” — “State of the Union (STFU)”
11. R.A. the Rugged Man – All My Heroes Are Dead
The highly anticipated follow-up to his 2013 album, Legends Never Die, R.A. the Rugged Man seems to find himself as a stranger in a strange land. In spite of that, he has to some extent become accustomed to the new climate of hip-hop (even if he doesn’t like where things are). He grapples with being seen as out of touch, coming from a different and more subversive era of hip-hop. R.A. also discusses fatherhood, politics and cancel culture with such conviction that you’ll have to give it a second listen.
Favorite Line: “Voodoo dictator, Haitian Papa Doc/ Underground G rap, not Rihanna slop/ You Madonna pop, not beyond hip-hop/ I am Pumpkinhead, I am Scott La Rock.” — “All Systems Go”
10. Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By
Eminem continues on his war path against wack rappers, music critics and bloggers as he flies into the face of people’s sensibilities. Yet as with his previous album, Kamikaze, Eminem is focused on making the music he wants as opposed to taking input from his detractors. Music To Be Murdered By is a concept album that borrows from Alfred Hitchcock’s spoken-word album of the same name, while exploring violence on both concrete and abstract levels. Eminem cites mass shootings and terrorism alongside a wide array of ultraviolent imagery that would make Alex Delarge blush.
Favorite Line: “I’m LL Cool J, ‘Bigger and Deffer,’ that’s how come/ I sell like four mil’ when I put out a bad album/ Revival flopped, came back and scared the crap out ’em.” — “Premonition (Intro)”
9. Benny the Butcher – Burden of Proof
Sticking to the ongoing theme of reflection and introspection, Benny the Butcher’s Burden of Proof sees the rapper breaking down his climb to success—from hustling drugs and getting out of the game and finding success in his music. Benny talks about the cost-to-benefit ratio of drug-dealing while lamenting the death of his brother and the impact it had on him as an artist and a businessman. It’s no “Scarface” or “The Wire,” as Benny’s brutal honesty shows the true impact of drugs on those involved.
Favorite Line: “It’s rubbin’ me the wrong way when these rappers speak comfortably/ ‘Bout street life, it seem like they only givin’ y’all luxuries/ I sat on work when I was positive it would sell/ You know this game come with way more consequences than jail.” — “New Streets”
Leading up to his sudden retirement, Logic had been put through the ringer with a dog-pile of criticisms from seemingly everyone. However, as No Pressure dropped it was quite clear Logic had regained his footing and established himself as an icon. The album is everything one would expect from classic Bobby Tarantino—geeky references, heavy Sinatra references, boom-bap beats and an uplifting energy that made the album a joy to listen to.
Favorite Line: “Call it static, my headphones on, it’s Illmatic/ On my Rosa Parks, in the back writin’ like B-Rabbit/ How I carry it, murder the beat then I’m-a bury it/ Producin’ tracks for the underground like Harriet.” — “No Pressure Intro”
7. Homeboy Sandman – Don’t Feed The Monster
Homeboy Sandman takes an introspective look at his traumatic past, interjected with songs about his artistic work ethic, coping with mental health issues, as well as his complicated relationships with women. Don’t Feed The Monster pulls no punches. It jumps into some of the darkest spaces of Homeboy Sandman’s psyche—but it gradually takes on a lighter tone as he raps about his disdain for biters or waiting on his girlfriend to go out for the evening.
Favorite Line: “Being an independent rapper isn’t always fun and games/ ‘Specially me as I’m an artist that don’t never sound the same/ Since I’m constantly rethinking how I think and how I rap and how I act/ Every record like I gotta start from scratch.” — “Don’t Look Down”
6. Royce da 5’9″ – The Allegory
Royce has had a really good run the last few years, between Layers, Book of Ryan and now with The Allegory all receiving well-deserved critical acclaim. Royce takes an in-depth look at how money lies at the heart of nearly all political discourse in the U.S. He ponders the impact it has as both a tool and as a weapon. The album speaks to contemporary problems, yet at the same time it feels like it will maintain its relevance well into the future.
Favorite Line: “I don’t rhyme for the likes, I’m who the jealous target/ I’m underground for life this shit is a seller’s market/ The rich get richer, the po’ get mo’ greedy/ We need Clarance A. to get what’s owed in these board meetings.” — “Overcoming”
Aesop Rock’s newest album is a road map to the ethereal world he inhabits. The rapper has always obfuscated his thoughts and feelings through dense, abstract metaphors, which suits the conceptual narrative he’s conjured up. While Spirit World Field Guide might have been designed with the intention of navigating listeners through the realm of Aesop’s mindscape, it’s quite easy to get lost in the expansive and elaborate enigma.
Favorite Line: “I’ve been ignoring any semblance of relatable Earth/ I got a homie from the region who could name every bird/ And tell you what it is to wake up with a tank in the yard/ Type of shit to make you question what your days even are…”—”Holy Waterfall”
Clipping. returned to horrorcore with the sequel to our 2019 pick for best hip-hop record. This follow-up embraces heavy synths evocative of John Carpenter’s film scores for “Halloween” and “The Thing,” with lyrical content inspired by the sinister storylines of “Candyman” and “The Evil Dead.” The album maintains its subversion of horrorcore through its outright embrace of genuine scares as opposed to the cliché shock value for which the genre is notorious.
Favorite Line: “The hook gon’ be the coldest pimp-slap/ Coat rack for man’s skin, let it air dry/ Swiss-cheesed a brother, already half-dead/ Brain leaking out a hole in his forehead/ Lobotomies like pills, get ’em for cheap.” — “Say The Name”
Keeping with a free-form structure, Black Thought’s Streams of Thought, Vol. 3 reflects the collective sense of anguish many have felt throughout 2020. While ruminating on the sociopolitical topics dominating popular discourse, Black Thought also takes the time to express his love for his family and maintains his standing as one of the greatest-of-all-time rappers. He manages to craft order out of chaos, as he touches on American society’s biggest problems with profound tact.
Favorite Line: “Everything’s obtuse, nothin’ is obscene/ Another young life was lost on livestream/ Another great fell from grace in high esteem/ Then the clock struck 13, we in some kind of dream.” — “Thought vs Everybody”
Run the Jewels have served as the icons of progressive change over the last few years. El-P and Killer Mike’s RTJ4 captures the critical essence of current political tensions as rampant income inequality, systemic racism, police brutality and rank authoritarianism have wrought havoc throughout the country. People are rightfully distrustful of their governments, and Run the Jewels have helped to amplify the voices of the unheard.
Favorite Line: “And every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free/ And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/ And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I Cant Breathe’/ And you sit there in the house on the couch and watch it on TV/ The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.” — “walking in the snow”
It’s been a difficult time for all of us, between the political turmoil, the pandemic, lockdowns and so on. Open Mike Eagle is struggling as much as anyone right now, between the cancelation of his TV show and divorce. When it rains it pours, the man has seen better days. Anime, Trauma and Divorce is all at once heartbreaking, funny, honest and incredibly relatable. In a time where we are more socially isolated than ever before, I can’t think of a better album that delivers a comforting and grounded presence from which we could all benefit. This is the album of the year.
Favorite Line: “Fallin’ apart, I can’t hold it together/ All in the art ’cause I won’t live forever/ I had a direction and split from the thesis/ Now I need more fingers to pick up the pieces.” — “Bucciarati”
Follow editor Tim Hoffman at Twitter.com/hipsterp0tamus.