We count down our top 25 hottest hip-hop albums of the strange and wild ride that was 2020.
Compiling a list designed to rank the albums of the year in numerical order has become a tradition of sorts, a celebration designed to stir up discussion and reflections on the music we've unpacked as a collective. In truth, it's becoming increasingly difficult to come up with an entirely qualitative order, given the subjective nature of taste and the impossible task of pleasing everybody. And yet part of the fun is in the discourse that arises, in unpacking the snubs and the merits of those who crack into the coveted top ten.
It's been a tough year to be sure, but our favorite rappers showed resilience and creativity in spades. Artists held it down across the entire sonic spectrum, from the lyrical to the melodic and beyond. Big names and newcomers alike added new chapters to their stories, some of which were full-blown comeback narratives. Others carried the bittersweet weight of being posthumous releases, a harsh reminder of the dangers that continue to plague the rap community.
With a new year on the horizon (and a few big releases still rumored to land before 2021 rolls around), the time has arrived to share our own top 25 albums of 2020. While we recognize the Herculean task of attempting to bring order to the wonderful chaos that is music, remember that ranking is an integral component of hip-hop discussion. So with that being said, whether you agree or disagree with the following list, be sure to sound off in the comments below. And yes, *insert name here* did get snubbed.
25. Juice WRLD - Legends Never Die
Days after turning 21-years-old, Chicago rap artist Juice WRLD passed away from a fatal drug overdose, marking one of the most devastating moments in modern music history. The “Lucid Dreams” artist had built himself an empire in the short span of two-years, becoming known globally as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, which speaks volumes because, for the most part, Juice didn’t even write his songs. The avid freestyler was respected for his ability to spit off the dome for hours at a time, truly living and breathing his passion for music.
This year, the late rapper’s estate released his first posthumous album, titled Legends Never Die. The album was a gift to the fans. From the title, to the cover artwork showing Juice in a gorgeous field of flowers surrounded by butterflies, to the actual music, Legends Never Die was a bittersweet collection of some of the songs that the late Jarad Higgins had put his heart and soul into during his final days.
Ending up one of the top-selling albums of the year, LND has been a chart mainstay. It’s also Juice’s most introspective work yet. While much of his earlier material focused on heartbreak, loss, and love, this album dealt with even more personal themes, like his anxiety, depression, and drug use. Songs like “Wishing Well” are heartbreaking to listen to, showing Juice at his lowest, predicting: “If it wasn't for the pills, I wouldn't be here/But if I keep taking these pills, I won't be here.”
The album was also a celebration of the amazing relationships that the late 21-year-old had made with his many collaborators, including Halsey, Trippie Redd, Marshmello, and, of course, his protégé The Kid LAROI.
If anything, the album proves that Juice could write a hit song -- or a hit album -- in his sleep. The art of making a catchy record came so naturally to the young man, and it’s dejecting to realize that such a talented artist is really gone.
- Alex Zidel
24. Big Sean - Detroit 2
Big Sean’s Detroit 2 was immediately a huge topic of conversation when it was released in September 2020. Fans had been waiting on a project of this magnitude from Big Sean since 2017, and he truly delivered. From start to finish, there is not one song on this 21-track project that we would consider skipping. Overall, the project felt personal — like we were listening to an evolved Big Sean rediscover himself. His mature, reflective lyrics, melodies, tone, cadences — even the features sounded intimate and carefully chosen.
On this album he invited both familiar, A-list artists, like Eminem, Lil Wayne, Travis Scott, Ty Dolla $ign, Post Malone, Anderson .Paak, Diddy, Young Thug, and of course, his girlfriend, Jhene Aiko. The first song, “Why Would I Stop?” sets the tone from the jump, dropping the clever one-liners we expect from him as well as deep, complex, thought-provoking ones that we hear throughout the rest of the album. From there, Big Sean takes us on a bit of a sonic journey. The tracklist, if listened to in order, almost feels like one long story. While that might sound mundane on paper, he managed to pull it off perfectly, using an eclectic variety of style changes throughout — each song is a completely different vibe from the last. He is arguably one of the pioneers of his style of rap — one that has inspired the next generation of artists — Detroit 2 was a necessary reminder of that, and certainly a worthy contender on this list.
23. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
You know it’s been your year when Congresswoman Maxine Waters writes you a heartfelt letter to tell you she’s proud of your successes. If Megan Thee Stallion’s career could be compared to a marriage, it would show that the rapper is thriving in her newlywed season. Megan burst onto the scene in 2019 with her “Big Ole Freak” breakout and it was quickly made clear that the Hot Girls takeover would have a long reign.
After many promises and several EPs, Meg’s Hotties finally received her official debut studio album Good News. It is littered with the bravado that has been typically relegated to men in the industry—a boasting and explicit nature that has rubbed many the wrong way coming from a 5 feet 10-inch tall woman. Megan has repeatedly proved that she knows how to craft a hit, whether it’s something the warrants its own viral TikTok dance or captures the attention of Beyoncé— Megan took her time on Good News to show that she’s a contender in both the rap and pop worlds.
Features on the record weren’t anything to sneeze at, either: her raunchy nature perfectly complemented City Girls on “Do It on the Tip,” she sizzled with SZA on “Freaky Girls,” and she demonstrated she could drop bars with the best of them on “Go Crazy” alongside Big Sean and 2 Chainz. After moving 100,500 units in the first week and snatching the No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 charts, we join the rest of the world in celebrating Megan’s shine.
22. D Smoke – Black Habits
Los Angeles has a longstanding reputation for breeding talent unlike any other. Lyricists and rhyme-slayers seem to grow in the City of Angels like roses out of concrete, and the latest seed to break ground is D Smoke. The 35-year-old rapper took the world by storm after winning the first season of Netflix’s competition series Rhythm & Flow as he flexed his bilingual lyrical skills. Since taking home the crown, D Smoke released his sophomore studio album and major-label debut Black Habits; an expressive, poetic sonic presentation.
D Smoke gives his experimental interpretation of the narrow space between rap and R&B on Black Habits. He takes chances throughout, partnering with other artists like Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, Ari Lennox, Jackie Gouché, Davion Farris, and his brother, Top Dawg Entertainment’s SiR.
The impressive project has earned the mainstream newcomer two Grammy Award nominations for Best Rap Album and Best New Artist at the 2021 ceremony. He may be competing against heavy contenders, but Black Habits deserves its seat at the table. Not only has D Smoke managed to encapsulate a vibe that plays to the very essence of Hip Hop's origins, but it’s an Inglewood soundtrack that the world needed to hear.
21. Boldly James - The Price Of Tea In China
Would you look at that... The Alchemist strikes again. The busy producer lays down a myriad of dope instrumental for Boldy James, a severely underrated Detroit talent. The Price of Tea in China is a lyrically laden experience that truly displays Boldy's skillset. The album features Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs, Benny The Butcher, and Evidence, rounding out a crew of usual suspects when it comes to The Alchemist's more recent collaborations. The Price of Tea in China dropped at the beginning of the year, and never really got the same love and attention that other Alchemist collab projects received in 2020. However, being over-looked is something Boldy James is used to, and he seems to find strength in this fact. The mid-western rapper finesse around this album like a man on a mission, attempting to increase his spotlight with every bar and breath. The highs of this piece far outweigh the lows, and we're sure it will be looked back upon as one of the greater projects of 2020. A fine piece of work, The Price of Tea in China only suffers from one "flaw" — we wish it was longer.
20. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie - Artist 2.0
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie kicked off 2020 with the release of Artist 2.0 in February, followed by the deluxe version in June which featured nine additional tracks. Music fans understand the unspoken rule that deluxe albums are often hit and miss, but in this case, Boogie came through with nine absolutely fire tracks that we're now quite sure we could not have lived without.
From the jump, A Boogie sets the tone by flaunting his gift for wordplay, delivering witty one-liners like they’re going out of style. But above all else, the big takeaway from this album is that he has mastered the art of melodic rap, an increasingly popular trend in hip hop culture.
"To the best fans in the world: Thanks for being patient and always supporting everything I do. It took a while to bring you this Deluxe because I wanted to make sure it dropped at a time that felt right," the rapper wrote on Instagram at the time.
Overall, this 29-track album is incredibly intuitive, smooth, and sonically aesthetic — every song stands a chance to get stuck in your head after just one listen. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie offers a wide variety of tempos, subject matters lyrically, melodies, textures, and tones, showing how truly versatile he is as an artist.
Often touching the boundaries of R&B with his music, A Boogie invited a couple of R&B stars onto his project, including Summer Walker and Khalid. Furthermore, the project also featured some of rap’s favorite, like Roddy Ricch, Lil Uzi Vert, DaBaby, and Trap Manny.
19. Future - High Off Life
When hip-hop fans think of Future, they immediately think of a man who birthed an entire generation of rappers. Initially, his hypnotic and drug-infused melodies were confusing to the ears of music listeners although he eventually caught on and in a big way. Previous projects like 56 Nights, Dirty Sprite 2, and HNDRXX are regarded as classics among Future fans, and with each new release, Future continues to mature sonically, all while keeping his youthful exuberance (and perspective).
With Future’s latest solo project High Off Life, the Atlanta artist delivered yet another formidable entry into his discography. Having been through a lot over the past few years, Future opts to open the album with a triumphant piano and string-heavy track called “Trapped In The Sun.” Here, we see Future speaking about his kids and how he wants to do everything he can to set them up for the rest of their lives. This is a motif that is repeated on the NBA YoungBoy-assisted “Trillionaire” which sees both artists offering up an emotional ballad that will certainly tug at heartstrings.
Don’t worry though, there are still plenty of those hedonistic bangers to be heard here. Tracks like “HiTek Tek,” “Ridin Strikers,” and “Posted With Demons” certainly come to mind, as Future can be heard over dark trap production while delivering bars that will cater to your inner toxic behavior or desires.
Once again, Future proves that he’s a trusted hitmaker and tracklist curator.
- Alex Cole
18. Gunna - Wunna
Before WUNNA, 27-year-old Atlanta rapper Gunna was known solely as the king of drip, predicted to become the next best thing out of YSL Records. One of Young Thug’s many disciples, Gunna managed to slightly reinvent himself with his new album, directing his legacy to take into consideration the rapper's new-found self-aware, care-free state.
In our recent cover story with the “DOLLAZ ON MY HEAD” rapper, Gunna details his recent foray into astrology and the discovery of his WUNNA alter-ego.
“I feel like [Wunna] probably comes out in exotic times,” said Gunna. “I feel like Wunna would be a little more spontaneous [than Gunna is.] He’s a little more funny and amusing. I feel like that’s the type of energy I like to bring when I’m more on Wunna time.”
Considering how much of the album was spontaneously created during a pre-COVID trip to Jamaica, that much rings true through the music. Of course, Gunna is still focusing heavily on his drip. That likely won’t ever stop. But, on songs like “FAR” with Young Thug, he reflects on all of the obstacles he’s had to overcome to get to this point. The record is one of Gunna’s most honest, heartfelt, and impactful tracks to date. It complements surefire hits like “ARGENTINA” and “SKYBOX”, showing a different side of the iconic artist we’ve come to know and love.
After a complicated rollout that seemingly kept getting delayed at the start of the pandemic, Gunna’s WUNNA debuted nicely, earning a #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart and selling 111,000 equivalent album units in its first week out, more than anything Gunna had ever released prior.
- Alex Zidel
17. 21 Savage & Metro Boomin - SAVAGE MODE II
The wait may have been long for 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s follow-up album to 2016’s Savage Mode, but our patience ended up paying off tremendously.
By the time 21 Savage and Metro Boomin released SAVAGE MODE II on October 2, 2020, several petitions had gone viral asking the rapper-producer duo to come through with the sequel. People yearned for the sinister sounds of Metro’s dark bangers, as well as 21’s clever punchlines and contagious ad-libs.
Finally, they delivered, coming through with one of this year’s best albums. They weren’t alone though. They brought everyone from Drake to Young Nudy to goddamn Morgan Freeman along for the ride.
The legendary Freeman jumped into the narrator role, delivering monologues about snitches and rats, the effectiveness of sequels, and more. SAVAGE MODE II is self-aware in that Metro and 21 seemingly did not go into their studio sessions with the intention of outshining the original. Instead, they added a whole other layer to the journey, which includes moments where 21 gets in his pop bag for the Drake-assisted “Mr. Right Now”, revisits some of his favorite retro sounds with “Steppin On N***as”, and delivers some of his most introspective bars to date on “My Dawg”, where he reflects on his upbringing as an immigrant.
The album cover is also one of the best of the year, calling back to some of Lil Wayne and Hot Boys’ most influential releases.
Will we ever see a Savage Mode 3 from 21 Savage and Metro Boomin? Hopefully. If not, SAVAGE MODE II will definitely hold us over for a long time.
- Alex Zidel
16. Mac Miller - Circles
When composer-producer Jon Brion set out to finish Mac Miller’s first posthumous album, he undertook an impossible job: to bring closure to the musical career of one of hip-hop’s most beloved artists. Listening to Circles is difficult. It’s an honest look into Mac Miller’s psyche prior to his tragic passing in 2018, and it hurts to hear. “I heard they don't talk about me too much no more/And that's the problem with a closed door,” he sings over gentle, subdued instrumentation on the single, “Good News.” It’s gut wrenching.
Sonically, Miller sounds further from his hip hop origins than ever, but it's a natural continuation of his evolution from early career frat rap to more neo soul and R&B influence in his later stages. On “Everybody,” Miller hammers home this growth with a sentimental cover of Arthur Lee’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” It feels like the piano and Miller are perfectly in sync as they both float through the track, rendered here as a vintage blues ballad. Just before departing Miller provides the only real rap song on the whole album with “Hands,” a final glimpse back to the Faces era, with its wonky beat and witty lyricism.
Circles is often heartbreaking, sometimes beautiful, and never disappointing. It’s an album truly worthy of being released under the Mac Miller name and provides closure to the career of one of the best artists of his generation.
- Cole Blake
15. Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony (Ø´ÙØ§Ø¯Ø© Ù ÙØªÙØ¨Ø©)
We promise you: this is not a "Jay-Z-made-this-project-
Hov's musical contributions here are just — there's no question that he still possesses the same lyrical prowess, thought-provoking wordplay and overall intelligence that's been a mainstay in his artistry since the Reasonable Doubt days. Jay Electronica doesn't lag behind in the least bit, and is actually able to express his personality and religious beliefs in a way that doesn't feel "preachy" and ultimately makes you want to learn more about the Nation of Islam. Good music makes you expand beyond your comfort zone, explore new things, and dare to think beyond your own beliefs. A Written Testimony is, no pun intended, a literal written testimony of that notion. Albeit, the "written" includes creds by the likes of Rihanna, PartyNextDoor, and even Louis Farrakhan amongst many others. A certified masterpiece and future classic for sure.
14. Benny The Butcher - Burden Of Proof
Similar to his Griselda comrades Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn, Benny The Butcher also released a game-changer this year with his sophomore LP. Following his critically-acclaimed debut album, Tana Talk 3 in 2018, Burden Of Proof arrived with a much more polished release that could be accredited to his new management deal with Jay-Z's Roc Nation. Then again, Benny has been dropping impressive work since his early mixtape days on the come-up in the late 2000s, so it's best to look at this project as a mere step up to an already trailblazing career. Rick Ross, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean, Lil Wayne, the elusive Dom Kennedy, Hit-Boy and jaw-dropping songstress Queen Naija come through to add a fresh batch of features, meanwhile, the aforementioned homies Conway and Westside Gunn jump into the mix on the standout track "War Paint" to add some familiarity.
Hit-Boy also proved yet again that his production flex is not to be played with, producing every track on Burden Of Proof himself with the exception of "One Way Flight" and "New Streets" (Jansport J, as well as receiving help from Corbett on "Trade It All" and G. Ry on album closer "Legend." Overall though, "the butcher" served up something cold and hearty for the culture with this album, and we can't wait for the next serving.
13. Pop Smoke - Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon
Just a week before his passing, Pop Smoke blessed fans with Meet The Woo2 which was a continuation of the Brooklyn Drill sound that he helped popularize. While Brooklyn hip-hop fans were already well-aware of the rapper, casual listeners were just coming around to how talented and unique Pop was as an artist. This left many wondering whether or not the rapper had any music in the vault that could be posthumously released. As it turns out, there was a lot of music to work with, and 50 Cent took it upon himself to release something that would cement Pop’s legacy. Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon was the result of this undertaking.
With previous projects, Pop Smoke was clearly focused on delivering drill-infused bangers that would energize fans. On Shoot For The Stars, Pop sounds like a curious young artist who is striking a balance between staying true to himself, all while paying homage to his influences, and exploring the depths of his sound. For instance, the track “Got It On Me” is the perfect Bling Era throwback that even features an interpolation of Fif’s “Many Men.” Even the track “Gangstas” has that 50 Cent feel to it, which gives the album a refreshing sense of nostalgia. Pop also manages to showcase his versatility on songs like “For The Night” and “The Woo” which see the artist portray his more melodic side.
While the album might not resonate with those who came to him for the drill tracks, there is no denying that this is a well-rounded album that will be talked about for years to come.
- Alex Cole
12. Lil Uzi Vert - Eternal Atake / Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World 2 (Deluxe Edition)
There's probably no album that was more hyped by rap fans this year than Eternal Atake — Carti's still-awaited Whole Lotta Red miiiight be the exception. Either way, Uzi practically overcompensated for the three-year wait since his 2017 acclaimed debut with Luv Is Rage 2, delivering an 18-track project followed by another whopping 14 additional tracks one week later for the deluxe edition, Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2. The latter component was loaded with features, including appearances from Chief Keef, 21 Savage, Future, Young Thug plus Gunna for standout "Strawberry Peels," Lil Durk, Young Nudy and Nav. In comparison, Eternal Atake has a sole feature from The Internet alumni Syd.
Comparing and contrasting the standard edition to the deluxe version is a given, but ultimately they act as two sides to one coin that, when paired together, are far more valuable than as separate entities. Uzi's signature trap sound takes over primarily, but the lead single and album closer "Futsal Shuffle 2020" proved that he's definitely not a one-trick pony. Listening to how the Philly native spars on tracks with his contemporaries is a great insight into his unique artistry, and the fact that he gives you a full side that's just him and another that includes all his friends — none of them dead, thankfully! — is a testament that he knows how to properly deliver for his global fanbase. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another three years for the follow-up.
11. Eminem - Music To Be Murdered By
To fully appreciate Eminem’s fatal dose of new tunes, it helps to have been along for the ride from the beginning. The landscape has changed entirely since Eminem and Dr. Dre first revolutionized the game with “My Name Is.” Twenty years later, and production has shifted into another realm of existence, forcing even the most experienced veterans to adapt. For Eminem, who dipped his toe in the water of change on Kamikaze, Music To Be Murdered By marked a confident reclamation of his position. No longer compelled to justify his existence, Slim appeared to be having a grand old time orchestrating our collective demise over assorted production from Royce Da 5’9”, D.A. Doman, The Alchemist, and Dr. Dre, reunited for the first time since 2010’s “So Bad.”
Technical wizardry is expected on every Eminem album, as are conceptually-driven moments of self-analysis. There’s something for everyone on Music To Be Murdered By, with a special quadrant reserved for longtime disciplines of Relapse; though there’s nary an accent to be found, hearing Eminem unleash his maniacal tendencies over beats from Dre and Dawaun Parker (“Lock It Up,” “Little Engine”) remains a nostalgic highlight. Familiarity with his conflicts and overarching biography imbue the project with added significance, providing closure to long-running narrative arcs. And perhaps most importantly is that undercurrent of deranged glee that emerges every so often, that absurdist gallows humor that has long been a trademark tool in Slim Shady’s butchery kit. Though many have emerged from the woodwork to question Em’s place in the hip-hop hierarchy, Music To Be Murdered By is a defiant reminder that he’s carved his initials into the rap family tree a long time ago, and those blood-etched markings show no sign of fading. On the contrary -- they’re as legible as they’ve ever been.
10. Nas - King's Disease
The 2020 release of Nas’ 13th solo project, King’s Disease — featuring names like Anderson .Paak, ASAP Ferg, AZ, Big Sean, Brucie B, Cormega, Dr. Dre, The Firm, Fivio Foreign, Foxy Brown, Hit-Boy, Lil Durk, Don Toliver, and Charlie Wilson, was just as great as his loyal, day-one fans expected it to be, as well as his newer, younger generation of fans.
The lyrics on this project aren’t necessarily the type to send listeners on a spiritual odyssey of self-reflection and complex soul-searching. Instead, they are energetic, mature, breathable, and easy to digest in a way that we haven’t seen from him in the past. The rhyming schemes are creative and poetic, and the overall production quality that Hit-Boy brought to the table is top shelf.
The title track, “King’s Disease” is a tone-setter that uses a classic soul sample — reminiscent of many Kanye West songs — and is a perfect way to ease listeners into the rest album. The remaining tracks are consistent with Nas’ philosophies on this LP, like what it means to be a deliverer of the truth, staying humble, and the many downsides that come with being on top of the world — very fitting considering the album’s title.
Where does this album rank in his body of work? It could easily mop the floor with plenty of modern rap’s creations, and is certainly one of the best projects he has put out in the third act — so to speak — of his career.
9. Polo G - The GOAT
Chicago had a busy year. Polo G dropped off his sophomore effort The Goat, featuring Lil Baby, Juice WRLD, Mustard, Stunna 4 Vegas, NLE Choppa, and BJ The Chicago Kid. The title may come off like another un-founded claim of ultimate greatness, however, Polo G's zodiac sign, Capricorn, was more of an influence on the name of the album. “It’s really a play on my zodiac sign; I’m a Capricorn,” explained Polo G. “I guess the animal [sea-goat] that represents a Capricorn. There’s a double meaning behind that because a lot of famous people are Capricorns: LeBron James, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Tiger Woods and Denzel Washington. They are all considered some of the greatest working professionals, so I feel like it’s just me to be great.”
Polo aimed to get a little deeper and display different sides of himself on The Goat, opening the door for his fans to get to know him better, including diving into relationship struggles with the stand-out "Martin & Gina." The project debuted a #2 on Billboard, and was later certified Gold after first moving close to 100k units in the first week. Hailed as a step-forward for Polo G, his sophomore effort showed the maturity and insight of such a new talent. If this project is indicative of album growth, the next decade should be a prosperous one for Polo G.
8. Royce Da 59 - The Allegory
Though many have long been critical of the Grammy Awards as a general institution, Royce Da 5’9’s recent Rap Album Of The Year nomination for The Allegory feels like a well-earned accomplishment for one of the game’s most consistent lyricists. And yet for those who have been riding with Nickel from the jump, the recognition feels long overdue. We’ve seen his brilliance before, whether on Death Is Certain, PRhyme, Layers, or the triumphant Book Of Ryan. It’s no surprise that Royce was once again able to shift the culture with The Allegory, an album that boasts added significance given the fact he laced the entirety of the beats himself.
There’s something inherently fascinating about an artist producing their own music, in that it allows them to express themselves in a multipronged fashion, providing a deeper glimpse into the way their creativity operates. For Royce, that gateway leads to a deep-rooted love of hip-hop tradition -- the flipped sample. For The Allegory’s duration, Nickel orates over raw and delightfully dusty production, his lyricism shifting away from the autobiographical nature of its predecessor and landing on society at large. Scathing in his assessments and boasting acerbic wit, Royce tackles themes of governmental corruption, deception, ownership, black excellence, and more. Axes are ground and observations are made, his cadence alternating between weary and cautiously optimistic. There are bars to be found throughout, but Royce takes his role helming the spotlight very seriously, shifting its glare onto any entity begging for further -- and often unapologetic -- analysis.
7. Westside Gunn - Pray For Paris
The man once told Virgil Abloh to write “brick” on his brick, a request that perfectly encapsulates everything there is to love about Westside Gunn. Which is to say -- artful marriage of high fashion and gratuitous violence, hyper-stylized in its frequency but squeamishly brutal in its depiction. A self-professed collector who once vowed to leave the game as hip-hop’s greatest orchestrator, it’s evident that Westside Gunn approached Pray For Paris as one might curate a museum: arranged as a feast for the senses with no shortage of historical value.
Boasting production from the stacked roster of Alchemist, Daringer, Beat Butcha, DJ Premier, Tyler The Creator, and DJ Muggs laying the foundational elements, Gunn’s first release of 2020 remains sonically cohesive from start to finish. As a lyricist, Gunn has long assessed his bars as top tier, content for Conway and Benny to bask in the spotlight but never shy to issue a sharp reminder when provoked. Pray For Paris finds him comfortably in his element, painting vivid pictures through an image-driven stream-of-consciousness flow. Granted additional character by a slew of luxurious yet still somehow dusty instrumentals, Gunn’s bars often benefit from multiple listens, namely to unpack the obscure references and interpret his unique vernacular. At times, a line may appear deceptively simple -- but like the abstract art that adorns his walls, the true depth is not always evident at first glance.
6. Pop Smoke - Meet The Woo 2
Pop Smoke’s Meet The Woo 2 served as an introduction for many to the Brooklyn-based drill rapper. In the months leading up to the release of Meet The Woo 2, the 20-year-old artist was being touted as the face of Brooklyn drill, forcing many to finally take notice of what he was up to. Songs like “Welcome To The Party” and “Dior” put Pop Smoke on the map. In terms of full-length records though, Meet The Woo 2 would be the first mixtape of Pop’s to gain serious national attention, proving to be a big hit upon its release on February 7, 2020.
Things quickly unraveled from that point on. Five days after the mixtape came out, Pop Smoke reloaded with three extra songs on the deluxe. A week after that, the rapper was tragically killed during a home invasion in the Hollywood Hills.
The unexpected end to Pop Smoke’s life resulted in a surge of mainstream popularity, with many finally beginning to catch onto everything that the Brooklynite was about. His slick flows, designer-laden bars, infectious laughing ad-libs, and overall energy, coupled with booming production by Axl Beats, Yoz Beatz, 808Melo, WondaGurl, and more kick-started a process of discovery for would-be Pop Smoke fans, inspiring people to learn more about the artist behind Meet The Woo 2, and the masterful energy of Brooklyn drill.
Meet The Woo 2 was more in-line with the sound that Pop helped to popularize, allowing him to go off one final time before reaching for his biggest dreams. After this, he started to branch out and display his versatility, which he successfully did on Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon.
This tape is perfect for releasing that pent-up frustration in the gym, late-night driving, or just chilling out. And the best part about it: it breathes that authentic Pop Smoke spirit. Rest in peace, Pop.
- Alex Zidel
5. Busta Rhymes - Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God
It may be presumptuous to assume that Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God will be Busta Rhymes’ final album. Yet given everything he poured into its creation, it may very well be his last effort in some time. In a year that explored and came to appreciate the process of bestowing flowers to the greats, Busta’s tenth studio album served as a welcome reminder of a rap titan’s legacy. Everything from the cadences to the production seemed meticulously arranged, as if designed to emulate a non-linear timeline of Busta’s stylistic evolution. The Dungeon Dragon can adopt many shapes, equally clever across each of its murderous iterations.
Whether tackling one of his vaulted J. Dilla beats with unrestrained asylum energy, calmly putting on a clinic over hazy trap production, or lifting his chalice in celebration over triumphant boom-bap, Busta Rhymes proved that even in 2020, arranging an album is an art form in itself. It’s no wonder so many of his peers, not to mention legions of longtime fans, responded so favorably to Busta’s majestic body of work. It felt like a victory lap, a reminder to not only the game at large, but to the man behind the music. A man who had, throughout the album’s multi-year creation period, experienced a near-brush with death due to polyps on this throat. For all we know, Extinction Level Event will not be Busta Rhymes’ swan song, though it certainly brings a satisfying closure to a legendary career. Either way, it remains one of the year’s most engaging, diverse, and downright ambitious projects. Hats off to one of the greatest to ever do it.
4. Money Man - Epidemic
Money Man is nothing if not internet savvy. To an extent. The rapper admittedly did not know a thing about releasing music on DSPs when he first broke out-- thus relegating his viral success to YouTube alone, blissfully unaware of Soundcloud, Spotify, and the like. However, he did build recognition off his ability to manage BitCoin and his overall business acumen. Nowadays, though, Money Man is worldwide, across all platforms, and he’s done it in a way that few artists have, or can.
The rapper tirelessly releases music, creating a loyal fanbase that now expects a certain quota, and a certain quality each year. This year, the quota included an 8-track Epidemic album, released at the top of the pandemic, which he followed up in August with the deluxe edition, featuring a total of 20 records. In between, of course, there was State of Emergency -- another year-end contender.
That’s the thing, though, it’s difficult to discount anything Money Man releases because everything is even-keeled. The rapper has discovered a formula, and it’s one that involves a lot of guitar-driven trap production, lyrics that reflect in-the-moment or off-the-cuff realities (whether that be Money Man's cannabis plant’s growth, his vegan diet, or something he read in the news that morning), and an auto-tuned-drenched, melancholy flow. With the deluxe edition of Epidemic, Money Man invited a wealth of new fans into the fold, thanks to the success of his “24 (Remix)” with Lil Baby. With very few other features, Money Man carries the weight of Epidemic himself. In fact, oftentimes his best records are his solo ones. There are plenty to choose from. “Amazon” has viral potential and it’s another example of that catchy guitar lick in effect; “Precise” takes on melodic piano keys for Money Man’s strained delivery; “It’s Yo World” is the sad-girl stripper anthem that we all need; “Cross Me” kicks off the deluxe edition in a sinister manner while Money Man declares: “this the hardest tape I’ve ever dropped.” We have to agree-- and what’s more, it’s one of the hardest projects of the year.
3. Conway - From King To A GOD
Conway the Machine's flow throughout the entirety of From King To A GOD proves that the title rings true, embodying confident aggression that many rappers before, after, and even during his current reign, would wish to possess. Whether he's trading bars with rap legend and Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man on "Lemon," or doing what he does best with the Griselda homies Benny The Butcher and Westside Gunn on "Spurs 3," Conway adds a fresh approach to hip-hop that makes for a key addition to getting New York rap back on the map, and not just that, but at the forefront of hip-hop culture once again.
Production is almost as impressive as the verses themselves, with heavyweights like Hit-Boy, Alchemist, Erick Sermon, Rockwilder, DJ Premier and even Mobb Deep surviving member Havoc on the standout cut "Juvenile Hell" — that's an ode to Havoc's 1993 debut album alongside the late Prodigy, by the way. Beat Butcha, Daringer, Signalflow Music, Murda Beatz, and The Away Team's own Khrysis also provide impressive production, making for a full-rounded project that stands firmly in its greatness. As debut solo efforts go, From King To A GOD is definitely way up there in terms of "best-of" conversations-- and we don't just mean in respect to the year 2020, we're referring to rap, in general.
2. Lil Baby - My Turn
The sophomore slump often plagues rising rappers. And while initial response to My Turn could’ve been seen as lukewarm in comparison to his 2018 run, his album was a declaration of his arrival in the game, formally. And the momentum he’s sustained, even throughout a pandemic, has been exhilarating to watch.
At a time when rappers come-and-go and social media fame seems of utmost priority, the Triller-spawned “Woah” was a glimpse into where Baby would head next, and surprisingly, it wasn’t as deep down the TikTok rabbit hole as one would expect. Ushering in the new generation of Young Thug spawns, Baby’s ear for both melodies and production have proven to be the sharpest tool in his wheelhouse. He kept a tight-knit group of producers on deck for this one, such as Quay Global, Atl Jacob, and Wheezy, who further honed Baby's syruped-out autotuned flows. Plus, the additions of people like the legendary DJ Paul, Murda Beatz, and Twysted Genius to the tracklist helped build upon his signature sound.
My Turn was an encompassing title as any; accurately capturing Lil Baby’s 2020 run. Between a global pandemic and an imminent need for systemic change, Lil Baby rose above it all, asserting himself as the voice for a new generation. It wasn’t necessarily blatantly political, though he offers his own personal views on socio-economic topics. "From the bottom, all I know is the struggle/ Can't get no job so all I know is the hustle," he raps on “Get Ugly,” the album’s opener. And on songs like “Emotionally Scarred” and “Sum 2 Prove,” both produced by Twysted Genius, as well as even “Gang Signs,” there’s an anxiety-inducing effect to Baby’s sing-rap flow over melancholic production.
A few of the highlights on this album were rooted in Baby’s vulnerability, but not all of them. We wanted that bag talk from Lil Baby and he did not disappoint on that end. Moneybagg Yo and Baby reconnect for “No Sucker” which only breeds further demand for a joint project. He brags about the $200K he earns per show (which has apparently doubled) on the Future-assisted “Live Off My Closet.” Even though it was on the deluxe, Baby and Dugg’s “We Paid” will remain one of the hardest anthems for hustlers in 2020, allowing the newly-signed 4PF rapper to earn his first top 10 record.
My Turn was a launching point for the incredible journey of a year that Lil Baby has been on. A 20-song tracklist might seem bloated -- an increasingly wide-spread problem -- yet Baby made each song its own moment, even if some have more replay value than others.
1. Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist - Alfredo
The Last Dance highlighted Michael Jordan’s borderline sociopathic approach to the game of basketball. Jordan’s tension with the GM and players from his own team, and others, even if they were a tad inflated in his own mind, fueled the victories that led to that iconic 3-peat. Freddie Gibbs has created history in his own way but with the many references to the Last Dance he included on Alfredo, his decade-plus come-up was fueled by those who counted him out. The release of Alfredo truly felt like a culmination of everything Freddie Gibbs overcame in the industry, from the prolific mixtape run in the blog era, to getting dropped by Jeezy and the charges in Europe, to ultimately, earning his first Grammy nomination. Paired up with Alchemist, who he previously worked with on Fetti, the duo deliver cream-of-the-crop mafioso raps on Alfredo.
Kane and Alchemist offer a masterclass in rap excellence: a melding of Gibbs’ incredibly vivid storytelling and Alchemist's thick, smoke-filled world of obscure samples. Glints of their chemistry together were captured on Fetti but on Alfredo, that chemistry blossomed and thrived. Freddie’s growth, both personally and musically, remains his most exciting characteristic as an MC.
On Alfredo, Gibbs is backed by yet another top-tier producer for a dense 10-song tracklist. The beauty in this project truly lies within its simplicity. It’s not bloated nor is it overwhelmed by guest features, giving plenty of room for Gibbs to talk his shit over cocaine-dusted vinyl samples. Gibbs offers a glass-half-full take on selling crack alongside Tyler, The Creator on “Something To Rap About.” Griselda’s Benny The Butcher and Conway make appearances to cement the status of coke rap in 2020. But it’s Freddie Gibbs’ collaboration with Rick Ross on “Scottie Beam” that marks perhaps the highest point on the project. Gibbs brings out one of the best verses from Rick Ross in a few years as they swap politically and socially-charged bars over hypnotizing keys.
It seems that creating an album of the year contender is as natural to Freddie Gibbs as breathing. Bandana was a firm reminder of his brilliance alongside Madlib, a producer who’s been critical to Freddie Gibbs’ development. But Gibbs’ instinctive nature on the microphone has allowed him to diversify his catalog. From collaborative projects with Madlib, Kenny Beats, and now, the Alchemist, Freddie Gibbs’s growing catalog will truly be unmatched if ever he decides to drop the mic.