Rather than assembling a list of the year's best rappers, it feels appropriate to highlight the emcees who elevated twenty-twenty on a purely lyrical level.
Hip-hop has been declared dead more times than one can count, with each rapper offering a different diagnosis on the fatal symptom that ultimately sealed its fate. In 2017, many feared that the “mumble rap” epidemic would wreak untold havoc on hip-hop culture as we know it. Production trends and beat-driven singles were placed under the microscope. Declarations that lyricism was on its way out appeared commonplace, at least in the mainstream eye. Fast forward to today, however, and the remnants of the mumble rap movement are all but gone. Rappers are once again taking pride in their bars.
Look no further than Kid Cudi, who found inspiration in proving that his pen game was worthy of praise. Or even the recent Grammy nominations for Best Rap Album, which highlighted the talents of Royce Da 5’9, Jay Electronica, Nas, D Smoke, and Freddie Gibbs. In a year that highlighted the importance of giving flowers to the cultural greats, lyricism proved to be one of the most valued criteria. And in all honesty, for whatever reason this year saw an influx of stellar writing across the board. While attempting to rank an arbitrary number of emcees in a ranking of 2020’s beat and brightest is certainly an option, it feels more important to celebrate the culture’s writers as a whole, rather than pitting them against one another in a subjective competition.
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With so much attention being paid to the mainstream on a daily basis, consider some of the ridiculous pens the underground scene has to offer. Rhymesayers represented as expected, with Aesop Rock and Sa-Roc turning in two densely written and intricate albums in Spirit World Field Guide and The Sharecropper’s Daughter respectively. Grimy fan-favorite Ill Bill left a fatal impression on La Bella Medusa, hitting fans with a dose of nostalgia by staging a Non Phixion reunion. Ka’sDescendants Of Cain was easily one of the most fascinating drops to unpack this year, lined with mythology and lush depictions. Prodigy protege and Havoc-affiliated Flee Lord attacked beat after beat with an insatiable hunger. Elzhi came through with another bar-heavy effort in Seven Times Down Eight Times Up; his fellow Detroit veteran Marv Won delivered an equally compelling drop on his entirely self-produced Sooner Than Later.
In fact, the D may very well have locked it down as the most lyrically adept city of the year. Alongside the aforementioned Elzhi and Marv projects came a trifecta of drops from Boldy James, who quietly made a case for lyricist of the year with The Price Of Tea In China, Manger At McNichols, The Versace Tape, and his most recent Real Bad Boldy. The legendary Royce Da 5’9” earned his first Grammy nomination for The Allegory, an album that some him exploring themes of racial equality, financial cognizance, and societal disenfranchisement. Eminem whipped up no shortage of bars on back to back installments of Music To Be Murdered By, a two-pronged project that many have deemed his best in years. And Big Sean paid homage to the entire city with his comeback album Detroit 2, uniting with Hit-Boy to deliver an impressive twenty-one song endeavor.
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Another area worthy of praise has to be Buffalo, thanks in large part to the elevated penmanship of the Griselda movement. There’s a reason why Conway The Machine recently declared himself the year’s best rapper, prompting many to nod in affirmation. Having dropped off three projects in Lulu, No One Mourns The Wicked, and his debut album From King To A GOD, it truly felt that Machine was rapping with a higher purpose -- one driven by a desire to be remembered as a hip-hop GOAT. At his right hand was Westside Gunn, who matched his pace with a three-album run of his own; though not quite as traditionally lyrical, Gunn’s outlandish blend of high fashion and brutal violence keep his bars comfortably in the conversation. Benny The Butcher also delivered, between hard singles like “Deal Or No Real” or “3:30 In Houston” and his Hit-Boy produced Burden Of Proof album. In fact, when many are left reflecting on the year’s best lyricists, don’t be surprised to see at least one of the Griselda team standing at the top.
Adjacent to the Griselda movement but no less formidable is Freddie Gibbs, who has been steadily proving to be one of the best writers in the game for years now. In fact, at this point, omitting him from conversations of this nature is straight-up dumb, as it’s reached the stage where competitive artists will legitimately seeing a Gibbs release date on their calendar. Another veteran who deserves praise for his penmanship is the legendary Busta Rhymes, who closed a chapter years-in-the-making with the triumphant Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God. Though many have taken to associating Busta with his breakneck flows and animated charisma, the Dungeon Dragon still gets busy on a bar-for-bar level. It goes without saying that Black Thought deserves praise for his own contributions, having once again solidified himself as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” with Streams Of Thought Vol 3.
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The list truly goes on, a testament to how solid a year this was for hip-hop fans -- even without the arrival of new albums from J. Cole, Kendrick, and Drake. KXNG Crooked and Joell Ortizkept the Slaughterhouse chemistry alive on H.A.R.D, with Crook rounding out the year with his slept-on Flag project. Dave East’sKarma 3 continued the series with more New York bars, while The LOX (and Jadakiss on a solo tip) channeled gangsters and gentlemen alike on Living Off Xperience.Joyner Lucas gifted fans with ADHD and Evolution, while his rival-turned-friend Logic enjoyed a spirited victory lap on the No I.D. produced No Pressure. Though a few choice antics risked hijacking the spotlight, T.I reclaimed the narrative with the lyrically-focused L.I.B.R.A project, one that had Royce Da 5’9” singling it out among the year’s best. And Reason did his part to keep TDE’s momentum rolling, single-handedly carrying the load with his major-label debut New Beginnings.
And that’s not even factoring in the stellar work of Nas. Of Jay Electronica. Of D Smoke, Grafh, Domani, Mick Jenkins, Serial Killers, and Tobe Nwigwe. El-P and Killer Mike proved fourth time could still be the charm with RTJ4, capturing a moment in time with their electrifying brand of dystopian commentary and scathing political bars. Hell, we even received a madcap hat-trick from Lil Wayne, who lined up a new album, a Deluxe edition, and a mixtape for our enjoyment. To list each emcee feels nigh impossible, but it’s clear that this year was one that once again showcased a universal truth. Hip-hop is built around the written word, and it thrives when lyricism is given the respect it deserves. Despite all of the misfortune that 2020 ushered in on a global level, it's nice to take solace in one simple, yet reassuring fact: bars are officially back.
Do you have a favorite lyricist of 2020?