My 20 Favourite Albums of 2020
2020 was horrible. Huge revelation? No. A generally accepted and tired topic of conversation? Yes. When we were all plunged into the dramatic, but soon very tedious, darkness of lockdown 1 back in March, there was talk the music industry would also suffer. An industry that, especially in the streaming age, should have been one of life’s few comforts was apparently going completely on hold, with rumours flying around that artists would be suspending their releases indefinitely in order to gain the most cultural and financial profit they could. This could have been a disaster, and whilst a lot of big names this year didn’t drop most likely due to the virus, it was still a great year for music, and personally without it this year would have been a lot bleaker. Although I obviously haven’t listened to everything this year, and nor do I wish to, there are still projects from this year on my to listen to list, but I didn’t want to shoehorn them into this list with only a few rushed listens. This will inevitably result in me disagreeing with this list in about a months’ time, but here we go.
20. Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God – Busta Rhymes
I never understood the Busta Rhymes hype. Heralded as a hip hop legend, and a godfather of the genre, Busta to me meant the legendary verse on “Scenario” and an instantly recognizable voice, but I couldn’t see the foundation or the work that had granted him the access codes to the hall of fame. Regardless, I listened to this project with almost no expectations and was pleasantly surprised. It’s almost too easy to see a 20 + song album from a hip hop artist well out of their prime as a recipe for the mundane and sometimes even disastrous, but Busta certainly avoids this here. This album’s content sprawls but that owe itself to the overall effect. Its packed full of beats from Q-Tip, Pete Rock, J Dilla, DJ Premier and 9th Wonder that generally complement Busta’s style perfectly. This is an old head album that doesn’t falter by being detrimentally nostalgic or outdated but itches the scratches of those looking for some classic boom bap, or a bit more dust to their beats. The first track “intro” is a 7-minute epic interpolating Nas’ “The World Is Yours”, and it’s done so tastefully that it really has a grand feel of classic to it. “Outta My Mind” is the second standout track that really exemplifies Busta’s ability to stay glued to an 80’s style beat, and it’s just fun to listen to. Other brilliant moments on this record come in the form of partnering up with old ally Q-Tip over a gorgeous piano led beat. And it’s almost blasphemy not to mention the impossibly gorgeous Kendrick Lamar track that takes all the warmth and love from the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and adds a killer Kendrick performance for one of the standouts of the year. The problems with this album though are on full show and stop it from climbing this list. For one, it’s just too long, and whilst Busta is entertaining, he doesn’t fill every track here with charisma. There’s filler and it really gets in the way of making this a “great” album. Even cheat code feature Anderson Paak couldn’t save “YUUU”. Another personal point its that Busta signature wacky delivery can sometimes really get in the way of his verses. He changes his voice and flow on some songs so frequently that it makes the entire verse sound like a stitched together soundboard app, and it’s really distracting sometimes. Overall, it’s got some great songs but suffers as a project.
Gem – Look Over Your Shoulder (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
19. A Written Testimony – Jay Electronica
I knew almost nothing of Jay Electronica when he dropped this album, and you can’t blame me. His buzzing at the turn of the decade lead him to being signed by Jay Z’s Rocnation in 2010. The world was poised for the debut album, and….well…it didn’t come. So here we are, a few features and a decade later, the debut album from the now almost mythical Jay Electronica drops, with ten years of anticipation tied to it like wrapping ribbon and the reception was mostly just, confusion?
The first thing that stunned people about this album was Jay Z. He’s on almost every track, and even has the opening verse. Now this isn’t a problem as such, but it isn’t a joint project and after ten years we get 10 tracks that feel like Jay Electronica makes up for only a small portion of the album. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it wasn’t for the fact that Jay Z happens to be one of the greatest hip hop artists to ever live, and therefore he outshines Electronica on so many tracks here that the idea of this being Electronica’s long-awaited debut begins to sound farcical. Regardless, this project has a lot to offer in a small amount of time. It’s concise, short and has some great contributions. The first track has a crunchy, dusty beat occasionally chopped up against the sound of children rejoicing, which is odd, but Electronica makes it work. Jay Z’s verse that opens the project just feels so euphoric. The listener gets to relish in Jay’s return to form, he’s still riding the excellence of his last full-length album, and he sounds so mature and unflinchingly confident. He’s reached a level that so few reach, hes undeniable. The early 2010’s were a blip for him. Electronica delivers a good verse, but his production is what really shines. Elsewhere The Alchemist lends himself to the gentle “The Neverending Story”, and the beat on “Universal Soldier” absolutely steals the show. The closing track is where the album earns it’s spot on this list though. “A.P.I.D.T.A” is a devastating song penned to the idea of loss. Whether it’s family or friends, the song exists in a different realm to the others. The instrumental is gorgeous, slowly waxing and waning through mourning jazz guitars that break their way through the spacy backdrop. Jay Z offers the simplest but most gut-wrenching hook “I’ve got numbers in my phone, that will never ring again”. Its hauntingly moving.
Gem – A.P.I.D.T.A
18. No Pressure – Logic
This was the biggest surprise of the year for me. Logic was universally the most criticised and castrated artist of 2019. He was already struggling with the internet’s label of being the “corny” guy in rap, and then he dropped two of the worst projects of the year that still to this day, despite his defence, have little redemption factor. I wasn’t a huge fan of logic, but I loved his Sinatra mixtape series, he was the nerdy rap kid who clearly loved the genre, and definitely had talent, but as his career progressed, he became so obsessed with the plagues of the internet and the rejection of false images that he became everything he hated, and the music became almost unbearable to listen to. “No Pressure” is a bittersweet delivery, as he announced that he would retire after this project, and it felt sad to know that he had fallen out of love with this craft due to reception. But this is a great way to go out, this is redemption. Production handled by No I.D is always a good start, but was it enough to bring the hunger of Logic back? After listening to the first track, I was stunned. The beat is crisp as hell, and Logic sounds like a man reborn. The cadence, the flow, the world play was all on full force. The second track “Hit My Line” chimes in with some chirpy piano chords, and then the thick drums crash in and Logic’s talking about his “Jesus Walks” and there’s a sense of adrenaline that hangs in the air, he knows that this is good, and it’s so fun to bask in the glory of an artist getting back in touch with their art. “Celebration” has a distinct old school Kanye feel to it, but not in a derivative manner, more a tip of the cap. “Dark Place” see’s Logic giving his audience insight into his mental struggle, but this time it feels sincere rather than forced. He sounds like he is genuinely struggling with his wavering love for the genre, and it makes for a difficult listen. There isn’t an ounce of performance on this song, it’s just him. The criticisms I have for this album would be that Logic spends a great deal of time paying homage to artists through the mediums of sampling and interpolation. For example, “GP4” samples the legendary “Elevators” by Outkast, and “man I is” samples Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know”. The problem I have with this is that these aren’t bad songs, not at all, but they cannot live up to the brilliance of the originals, and therefore I have no reason to go back and listen to them. Sometimes the homage is a bit too blatant and deems the song just redundant for me, as I know the original is better.
Gem – No Pressure Intro
17. What Kinda Music – Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes
“What Kinda Music” is a laid-back jam record that brings multi-instrumentalist Tom Misch together with drummer Yussef Dayes as they explore everything from neo-soul to nu-jazz. The record isn’t particularly cohesive, and the songs aren’t particularly linear, but they aren’t supposed to be. This album is centred around the jamming sessions that these two held, and the songs reflect that perfectly. The title song embodies this idea, it has thumping bass, the drums are erratic and refuse to be boxed in, and Misch brings his minimalist singing style to the track to make a brilliant song. “Nightrider” manages to bring in one of this year’s best rappers Freddie Gibbs for a song that delivers on it’s title in every way, the echoing jazz chords, the ambient backdrop and the controlled vocals give the song a nocturnal feel that gets more irresistible with every listen. “Tidal Wave” is a song drenched in drama, and the way it pushes and pulls from it’s slow and somber verses, to the thick wall of sound that crashes in with every chorus results in one of Misch’s greatest efforts so far. There’s something so cathartic about the collision between “Chaos!” and Dayes drum breakdown, it’s chaos just testing the boundaries of control. Finally, “The Real” sees Tom returning to his beat tape days, dusting off the drum machine and making a straightforward, but beautiful beat layered with electric guitar, twinkly piano keys, chipmunk vocals and drumming that culminate in a feel good vibe. This project does have a few duds, and “I Did it for You” represents everything I wish Misch would drop, it’s a very “Geography” sounding song with little to offer, and others like “Julie Mangoes” and “Last 100” aren’t terrible, but they don’t appeal to me all that much. All in all sonically this album is ambitious and rich, and although not every song hits, it’s a smooth and compelling listen from one of Britain’s rising stars.
Gem – The Real
16. EVERYTHING – Kota The Friend
Kota occupies a lane of hip hop that’s becoming increasingly popular – chill hip hop. It may sound very surface level, but it’s difficult to master whilst keeping a level of interest from the audience. “EVERYTHING” is a valiant attempt, that comes very close to perfecting this formula. This album is just a vibe. I hate saying things like that, but this music gives me very little choice. Kota is a rapper that thrives on his down to earth lyricism, smooth cadence and relatability. He raps about summer romances, days by the river drinking beers with his friends, chasing girls, and having a good time. This to me feels like the hip hop equivalent to “French Kiwi Juice”, it isn’t there to be analysed and scrutinised, its there to be the soundtrack to your summer, and to provide you with an easy listen in which someone may find comfort and sentimentality. The production on this album does a lot of the leg work, and comes to be gentle, sunny, warm trap beats that have charm by the bucketload. I rarely listen to this album through as a body of work, but almost all of the songs made it into playlists this year, and as I was going through the albums, I realised just how fond and familiar I am with the majority of these tracks. “Long Beach” is the perfect summer jam. Catchy hooks, horns, bright guitars and Kota’s undeniable presence and flow. “Mi Casa” gently rises through the bird song with a guitar riff that feels like its blooming in spring, and “Summerhouse” does the same to throw the listener into a trance of relaxation. Whilst the collaboration with Joey Bada$$ and Bas really wasn’t anything special which was a huge shame, elsewhere Kota makes brief attempts to provide a vibe change with “Seven – Interlude” that’s lead by an earnest guitar riff and some drums that have more purpose and weight to them, they don’t float but fall. It is a chilled out, vibe of an album that does nothing to innovate or provoke, and that’s ok.
Gem – Long Beach
15. King’s Disease – Nas
This is the first album on the list by one of my favourite artists, and an artist that’s reputation and beloved status loom over the genre inescapably. Nas, whilst having some of the biggest classics the genre has ever seen, is famously inconsistent, and his last effort with Kanye West wasn’t exactly the flourishing success it should have been. He has nothing to prove this late on in his career, but I was still anxious to see what he would deliver with producer Hit-Boy for “King’s Disease”. He’s a rapper that for me falls in the category of poetry, his lyricism is second to none, but whether he can still turn it on was the question. This project propels Nas into the 2020’s. Hit Boy’s production on this album is consistent, concise and on the whole pretty great. But it’s also not Nas’ usual playing ground. Nas rose to legendary status by taking the New York 1990’s dusty, boom bap production and lacing it with verses so complex, entertaining and prolific they were considered revolutionary. It’s unfair to expect him to do the same 26 years down the line, but it lingers in the back of your mind. Hit Boy’s production is great, but its characterised by how polished, and sometimes glitzy it can be. It can slap, but they are usually cleaned up, speaker ready beats, which sometimes don’t compliment Nas. The title track is a brilliant one, with Nas sounding not hungry, but comfortable on his throne rapping over distorted vocal melodies. “Ultra Black” was a single that I wasn’t too enamoured with at it’s release but it’s grown on me massively. Nas brings his own thoughts to the BLM movement with a song that celebrates and rejoices black culture like no other. He stitches together themes, brands, figures, trends and so much more than come to embody the term “black” and simply celebrate their excellence. It’s a motivating listen and Hit Boy’s glitchy boom bap beat is the perfect vessel. “All Bad” finally brings Nas and Anderson Paak under the same roof over some gorgeous piano keys and a tight beat that fulls like it’s running leaving the two to air out their grievances with past loves. There’s a lot of nostalgia here, The Firm reunite on “Full Circle” (but Dr. Dre has no part in the actual song?!?!), and “Car #85” has undeniable charm as Nas reminisces over his antics in his hometown. My only gripe is that this album isn’t Nas firing on all cylinders, and sometimes that combined with the clean production can lead to some lulls, and moments where the record isn’t particularly exciting.
Gem – All Bad (feat. Anderson Paak)
14. UNLOCKED – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats
This album is just such a rewarding and undemanding listen from front to back – and rightly so: it’s only 18 minutes long. I had no expectation and no awareness of this when it dropped, but I listened and I was not disappointed. This is 8 short songs that feature glitchy and sporadic beats from Kenny Beats, and gripping rapping from Denzel Curry. First of all, the production on this tiny album is crazy. Its boom bap with an apocalyptic twist, and the beats just thump so hard providing the perfect battlefield for Denzel to unwind. Denzel spends most of his time on this record just blessing the tracks with his unmistakable presence, and his lyricism has never been sharper, nor more entertaining. There’s clever one liner after clever one liner that many listens later still find a way to hit you in the sweet spot. There isn’t a moment to breathe on this record, and you can never predict where this underdog of an album is going to go next. It’s that simple really, this album is just such a unique and entertaining listen that will keep you gripped for 18 minutes, and then you will inevitably hit repeat. Is it revolutionary? No. But a gift all the same.
Gem – DIET_
13. The Price Of Tea In China – Boldy James & The Alchemist
Like almost every other year, The Alchemist is all over the list because he just can’t seem to miss. I wasn’t aware of Boldy James before this year, but I certainly am now. The Alchemist brought me to this project and it was a strange listening experience. It had an atmosphere that could be mistaken for low energy and monotonous, but instead falls in line with dark and frosty. I wasn’t a huge fan when I first listened to this project, I could tell that Boldy could rap, but his monotone steady delivery threw me off and I left it. But throughout the year, his name kept popping up, and after multiple listens, track by track, this album began to win me over. It starts in typical Alchemist style, it’s a lagging, droning soul sample held up by some heavy and tired piano chords. Boldy comes in with a compelling verse that fits into this atmosphere effortlessly. His monotone and slow delivery means that lines and witticisms often go overlooked on first listen but open the floodgates to replay ability. The tempo is upped slightly with “Surf & Turf” which features an excellent verse from Vince Staples, and whilst the beat is still spacey, it has more of a punch to it as it floats on by. It provides an awakening from the sinister and lethargic tracks that have come before. Boldy’s flow on this track is perfect, and masterful. He sounds controlled and the atmosphere is carefully engineered by The Alchemist to ensure Boldy’s voice is front and centre. “Run Ins” takes this even further as the beat begins to gather in momentum and the loop provides urgency and soul to this scarce landscape, with Boldy following suit, his cadence and flow just slightly more purposeful than before. Benny The Butcher trades verses with Boldy on the terrifyingly dark “Scrape the Bowl”, and Freddie Gibbs provides stellar input on the spooky “S.N.O.R.T”. This album does a great job of depicting the neighbourhood of Detroit that was so damaged by drugs and violence through Boldy’s cold and ruthless presence on the mic, and The Alchemist’s genius ability to create musical soundscapes that perfectly reflect the feelings of the artist that dare to inhabit them.
Gem – Carruth
12. The Allegory – Royce Da 5’9’’
Royce is lyrically in another dimension and always has been. He is one of the few artists that I would bring up to demonstrate the talent and skill that goes into the art of rapping. And until 2018, I thought that was all he was capable of, but with “Book of Ryan” he turned his unparalleled way with words into great song writing, and an introspective masterpiece. So, expectations were high for “The Allegory”, and it mostly delivered. “The Allegory” is the most complex and thematically ambitious album to drop this year. The dense lyricism on most of these tracks can only be understood with multiple listens or a Genius page, and that makes the album very interesting. It isn’t the most accessible, or repayable, but no one can deny the importance of what Royce is trying to explore with the project. This is the kind of album that strives to be educative, and it succeeds in so many ways. This album if anything is a testament to how gripping true lyricism really can be. It’s an intense listen but the euphoria and adrenaline you get from listening to him manipulate the English language to his liking is astonishing. You almost feel breathless after some of these verses, and their greatness is truly something to behold. But he always ensures there’s reason to his bars. This album is very socio-politically centred, and the messages it beholds, whilst I haven’t understood them all, are entirely important. To add to this, Royce has taught himself how to produce and produces the whole album… The entire of Griselda appear on three separate songs, and each one is just saturated with excellent writing, and some of the best rapping this year. Whilst not every song and feature work out this album’s ambition and importance speaks for itself.
Gem – Overcomer
11. Streams of Thought, Vol.3: Cane & Able – Black Thought
From one lyrical juggernaut to another: Black Thought. Lead emcee of my favourite hip hop group “The Roots”, Black thought is one of the most consistent, important and brilliant minds hip hop has ever seen. Whilst this project, understandably, doesn’t quite have the same feel or appeal as his work with “The Roots”, it’s still an excellent effort. “State Prisoner” opens the record definitively, and Black Thought is practically engulfing the Sean C production in flames, dropping mind boggling punchlines like they are going out of fasion. “Good Morning” is probably the best posse cut of the year, with Pusha T delivering his brilliant arrogance in full colours, and Killer Mike demonstrating why he’s every rappers favourite MC. All three of these verses are incredible, and it’s such a spectacle to see them stacked on top of each other over a fierce some beat. “Magnificent” is reminiscent of the Soulquarian era and sees Thought providing a musical autobiography of his experiences which is in equal parts interesting as it is enjoyable. “Nature of the Beast” is the only misstep, but unfortunately, it’s quite a big one and on an album this short it does stand out like a sore thumb, I don’t need singing Black Thought to resurface again anytime soon. But the record picks up again with “We Could Be Good” which sees Black Thought struggling to juggle his career with his relationship, and then “Steak Um” brings Schoolboy Q into the mix over a menacing beat that steals the show entirely. “Thought Vs Everybody” is the centrepiece here though. Its everything Black Thought does well, it’s verse poetry that whether it means to or not declares total domination over anyone that dares approach this level of artist. Sean C lays down some minimal jazzy piano keys, and a momentum fuelled beat that doesn’t dare interfere with Black Thought. The rest is just a performance like no other. Once again lyricism meets substance:
My hands against the wall outside a billiards hall
I hear police discussin' whether to try and kill us all
I questioned if that'd matter, life is like a tree that falls
In the woods, even with iPhone footage to see it fall
Great men chose the Papermate Pen or State Pen
Gem – Good Morning (feat. Pusha T, Swizz Beatz & Killer Mike)
10. Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist
Freddie Gibbs is on one of the best album runs I can remember, and after delivering two of the best rap albums this decade with producer Madlib, he decided to knock another one out of the park with none other than The Alchemist. This Grammy nominated project has topped so many lists this year and for good reason, it’s fantastic. Gibbs brings back the Mafioso theme to hip hop and with awesome results. This dusty record truly lives up to its name, it has a Godfather feel to it. There’s nothing bombastic and flashy here, all the instrumentals from Alchemist are either smooth, spooky, sinister, soulful or just ice cold. The record embodies everything it means to be Mafia. The cohesion of this record is just so brilliant, as Alchemist laces all these wonderful beats together with intros and outros that cut blacksploitation clips or sounds from the world that act as transitions from one track to another. Gibbs has never sounded more comfortable and his rapping just continues to improve. He has all the braggadocio and justified arrogance of before, but his flows and the pockets he finds in these beats are just insane. The way he floats over the intro track “1985” is a blessing to hear. The electric guitars kick down the door into this album, and soon find harmony with the light dusting of the piano keys, never outshining Gibbs, but acting as seasoning to just quietly perfect this album. “Scottie Beam” is a bed of cloud as Rick Ross and Gibbs bring their demons to the table, with Gibbs explaining how his “execution may be televised”. “Something To Rap About” is a strong song of the year contender, and maybe my favourite Alchemist instrumental of all time. It’s just gorgeous. The slow sun-soaked guitars rest gently over the soft drum and bass combo to harness an atmosphere of luxury that’s utterly enticing. Tyler the Creator taps into this perfectly with his verse that revolves around the “boat he hasn’t bought yet”. He and Conway even get personal and introspective on the track “Babies & Fools”. Whilst it’s not quite got the unique and special factor that his projects with Madlib have for me personally, it still a brings something refreshing to the genre.
Gem – Something to Rap About (feat. Tyler, The Creator)
9. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez – Gorillaz
Gorillaz haven’t had the smoothest decade, whilst they haven’t been awful, they haven’t been able to recapture the magic of their first decade in a meaningful way. “Song Machine” is genius as it almost relieves the pressure of this entirely. Over half of the songs on this album were released prior to this release, and it was marketed as basically a project made up of separate songs and collaborations, and it works remarkably well. Unlike their previous classics, “Song Machine” doesn’t strive to explore a certain theme or concept it just simply throws together these collaborative songs without the promise of cohesion. Whilst they slightly sacrifice their cartoonish identity and “band” like feel to them, they are truly back on top here. This takes the heavily collaborative aspect that they attempted on “Humanz” and gets it right this time. The record opens up with a feature from none of other than The Cure’s Robert Smith on “Strange Timez”. The keys and distortion give the song an eery feel to it which perfectly fits Smith’s crooning performance. It then cuts into a vintage Gorillaz breakdown of electronic bass and almost dance feel to it. “Pac-Man” is the most classic Gorillaz song on the project, featuring its cartoonish beat and a sprawling, epic verse from Schoolboy Q which culminates in just an amazing track. “The Pink Phantom” does what Damon Albarn does best which is bring unlikely artists together to make a musical moment. R&B artist 6lack very much exists within the realm of autotune emo singing, and he’s put alongside legendary singer songwriter Elton John, and it works brilliantly. Elton is past his glory days vocally, but the track is so emotionally charged that it doesn’t matter at all. This record is all over the place and it can be accused of just playing to the features sound and strengths, but that doesn’t take away from the music. “Aries” is basically a carbon copy of a “New Order” song basking in all it’s 80’s glory, and whilst I can see how that might jar some people, it’s a great song. There are very few to no duds on this album, and it’s such a great listen from front to back. It feels like an album having a deliberate identity crisis, and it’s awesome to see all these genres, artists and influences fall into the melting pot.
Gem – Aries (feat. Peter Hook & Georgia)
8. Burden of Proof – Benny The Butcher
Yet again another album collaboration with Hit Boy, but this time it’s Griselda emcee, coke rap connoisseur Benny the Butcher. This guy is truly one of the sharpest and meanest lyricists in music right now, and his previous efforts have been relentlessly grimy, dark and gutter. He’s able to create an atmosphere on a record like no other with his old school, murderous beat selection. So when it was announced that he was teaming up with Hit Boy, I was incredibly sceptical. Hit Boy’s glitzy and clean production against Benny’s visceral and grimy lyricism just seemed like a match made in mediocrity, but I was so wrong. This album was one of the best first listens on this list, if not the best. The production is certainly cleaner and more accessible then on “Tana Talk 3”, but it also allows for the beats to have more soul, and for Benny to become more open and honest as an artist. All my fears were extinguished with the opening track “Burden of Proof” that’s beat drop of horns, impossibly deep bass and Benny’s lyricism is everything you need from this small niche of Hip Hop. Benny sounds almost regal, he’s risen above the dirt of his previous releases and is now comfortable. “One Way Flight” earnt Hit Boy my respect as a producer entirely. It’s one of the most endearing and excellent instrumentals of the year. Switching from vocally rich soul sampling, to string led beat drops and even a Freddie Gibbs feature. It’s a perfect hip hop track if ever there was one. Song of the year contender. If there’s one thing this project has over its predecessors it’s that Benny makes more of an effort to lay himself bare on this project, you get far more of an insight into him as a human being, and his story. “Famous” is a track that sneers in the face of fame, explaining how the only time he ever felt famous was when he got his first “brick”. “Thank God I Made It” see’s Benny rapping in a completely different light. Before now it’s been cutthroat lyricism on par with Pesci in Goodfellas, but this song sees him emotionally vulnerable, thanking his mother for her guidance and remarking on how the death of his brother has affected him mentally. It’s a genuinely moving moment bolstered by next level production from Hit Boy who was more in his soul bag than ever before. “War Paint” delivers the necessary Griselda posse cut, and without disappointment with Conway delivering one of the best verses of the year. The only thing that holds this project back is sometimes the production doesn’t quite work, and you can’t quite help but wish for a Daringer or Alchemist beat.
Gem – One Way Flight (feat. Freddie Gibbs)
7. Manger On McNichols – Boldy James & Sterling Toles
This album took 13 years to make. 13. Years. Boldy James and Sterling Toles linked up in the mid to late 2000’s to start work on this underground masterpiece, and as they have evolved as artists, they have kept this in their back pocket, tweaking it and adjusting it as they see fit, and judging by the sound of this record, you can see where the work went in. After listening to Boldy James on TPOTIC I had him pinned as a decent MC that would stay in the Griselda lane of Daringer beats and solid lyricism. This album is a complete departure from that, lyrically, thematically and instrumentally. First let’s try and describe the production on this album. This feels, production wise, like the underground and more experimental To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s completely grounded in experimental jazz, and throughout this project you will hear everything under the sun, from pianos, to violins, to woodwind instruments. Its musically complex beyond belief, and that owes itself to the rich tapestry this album becomes. The album starts with a solitary violin, then incomes a muddy bass riff, haunting vocal inflections and muffled drums that can barely be heard. Theres instrumentally nothing here that suggests hip hop, and Boldy is in a completely different mindset. The instrumentals sound as though they are trying to depict the constant conflict and struggle that Boldy relays on this project. His lyricism is steady, controlled, and brilliant but he sounds more alive here than ever. This is his story, and he leaves no stone unturned. “Detroit River Rock” is the most accessible song on the album. It starts with what sounds to be Hispanic tongues, and then a beautiful horn section swings from cautious, to utterly triumphant as Boldy comes in with his impassioned performance. There’s so much musically going on here. This is Jazz rap in its truest form. I could write about how bold and ambitious almost every track is on this album, but “Mommy Dearest” tops them all. This song is one of the most depressing and beautiful songs I have ever heard in my life. Boldy details his relationship with his estranged mother, and how she wasn’t there for him as a child, leading him to ponder whether she ever wanted him in the first place. But this track manages to be void of any cliches, or emotional embellishment that’s found on other songs of this nature. There is no indulgence in sight. Its raw and powerful. Sterling Toles provides the most epic instrumental that constantly evolves and shapeshifts so that the listener never gets comfortable. The violins are icey and emotionless, the drums are muffled and sound as though they are being played a few apartments away, and you can see them through the mist, and the angelic vocals are underproduced making stripping them of their hope and filling them with mourn.
This album is epic.
Gem – Mommy Dearest (A Eulogy)
6. From A King To A GOD – Conway The Machine
This album feels like all of Conway’s attributes finally coming together to create something great. He was always my least favourite in the Griselda camp as he never delivered a project that I loved, but this year he’s been a mission. He dropped countless EP’s, features and then finally his first full length album. This album has it all. It has the accessible banger in the Hit Boy aided “Fear Of God” which propelled Conway into a 2020 friendly light that we hadn’t seen him in before. He sounded unreal over that type of production and the collaboration was totally a welcome change to his usual heavy sound. But where this album for me has an edge over Benny’s is in its variety. Next to “Fear of God” he delivers his signature spooky style with the dark “Lemon” with none other than Method Man. “Lemon” is Conway’s bread and butter. The beat is slowly punches under a sparse and horrific instrumental. Method Man brings everything to the table, and gives a verse worthy of VOTY praise. From there, Alchemist and Daringer collab on “Dough & Damani”. It’s a piano fest. One half of the track provides some sunny levity, over a gentle beat and an chirpy riff, but it quickly turns into Conway’s signature sinister sound. Piano keys falling into a glitchy cavern, and a deep beat turns into one of the many moments on here. Lyrically Conway is channelling 94’ Biggie and he’s razor sharp. But the mafia tough guy also takes the opportunity to get personal and this is important. The main criticism people have not only against Griselda, but the musical genre that they have come to spear head is that there’s little room for vulnerability, and for the artist to open up. Conway answers the Floyd controversy with the socio-political statement “Front Lines” which features a rolling march of a piano riff and Conway giving some much needed blunt clarity on the desperation of the situation. He and Freddie collab for the second time and once again they refrain from the bar fest, and pen verses on the hardships of their lives. But the pinnacle of Conway’s effort to be more conscious is on “Forever Droppin Tears” where he pays tribute to his DJ who lost his life earlier in the year, and he does so through telling personal and painful stories of their relationship. The album has too many great songs to mention in this segment, but Conway managed to break out of the boxes that the industry put him in, and it makes for a thrilling ride.
Gem – Lemon (feat. Method Man)
5. RTJ4 – Run The Jewels
Run The Jewels are everything hip hop needs right now. Their story is fascinating and unorthodox in almost every way. Two underappreciated and deflated artists hitting middle age are introduced to each other, Killer Mike, and El-P. The have drastically different styles, but similar compasses and outlooks on the world. And so, the bold, big, mouthed Killer Mike, hooked up with cigarette smoking white guy El-P to form what would become one of the most unlikely but amazing hip hop duos ever. This fourth instalment is arguably their best, and certainly their most important. Dropping in the middle of the George Floyd riots, RTJ4 is the soundtrack to 2020 and the most important album that came out this year. This record starts in the vein of most Run the Jewels albums. It’s bombastic, slightly electronic beats with brash rapping and aggression by the bucket load. But, this album has a slightly different feel to it. The drums have an old school sound to them, and the entire project feels slightly more boom bap orientated. Killer Mike and El-P said they wanted to make their own “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”, and in my books they succeeded. “yankee and the brave (ep.4)” bursts into the scene with Killer Mike sucker punching his verse as the drums practically take off from beneath him, before the 2 minutes is up Killer Mike is holed up with “A hundred cops outside” waiting to kill him, and then it’s gone. Then the single “ooh la la” kicks in with its chord progression, huge drums and children’s vocals. El-P and Killer Mike both deliver fun verses depicting their vision for the apocalypse, and it’s seen out with some scratches from DJ Premier. It’s an amazing single, and a huge song of the year contender. From there the album begins to get more serious and unpacks the issues at hand. Both of these artists are grown men, with responsibilities and experience, and they impart their ferocious wisdom all over this record and it’s stunning. The best example of this is Killer Mikes verse on “walking in the snow”:
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
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, "I can't breathe"
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give's a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
This is only a slice of the stirring verse he lays down, but it’s important to note that this was written before George Floyd. Goes to show how miserably applicable that is to events that happen every day. It’s a cycle.
This album is a riot. I don’t mean that in the sense that its fun, although sometimes it is, but it feels like the perfect accompaniment to the movement. A duo, one white and one black, providing their perspectives, emotions and demands over some of the most creative production out there from El-P. The last song is for the most part a drum less, misty, saxophone lead anthem that see’s El-P and Mike pouring their hearts out, with the occasional drum roll ripping through the fog like thunder to create a truly eery and apocalyptic atmosphere. A MUST listen.
Gem – ooh la la (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)
4. After Hours – The Weeknd
The Weeknd is an artist whose doesn’t get enough recognition for the influence that his mixtape sound back in 2010 has had on the music we listen to. He delivered his classic “Trilogoy”, his sound shaped and informed Drakes brilliant “Take Care”, and from there he’s mastered pop excellence with the class that only a few possess. This new instalment is a return to the “album” after “Starboy”, which for me wasn’t at all bad, but was a bit of a mess. “After Hours” gives 80’s synth pop a breath of fresh air, and it’s magnificent. He not only managed to take a throwback sound and make it work, he also managed to break the charts whilst doing so. “Blinding Lights” is the best pop song of the year. Hands. Down. Its cinematically captivating, immediately blanketing you in warm nostalgia of old 80’s films and music, but also keeping fresh enough to claim authenticity. It’s immaculately produced, instantly catchy and just such a feel-good track, and anyone who disagrees is just wrong. But whilst an album full of “Blinding Lights” would have been ok, that is not what we got. “Hardest to Love” sees The Weeknd bringing his iconic vocals and writing to a dance track that’s breakdown is almost reminiscent of Drum and Bass, and with memorable results. The writing here is also compelling, with the Weeknd recognising his flaws are standing in the way of proper connection with his partner. “Scared to Live” kicks off with ambient synth lines, broken up by power ballad drums that ricochet through the mix, and isolate Abel’s vocals perfectly, showing the world that he has more range in his voice than his usual Michael Jackson esque delivery. It’s a heart-warming moment. But for those longing for the “House of Balloons” sultry Weeknd to make a return, he pops his head up a few times, most notably on “Escape From LA”, a vintage Weeknd song that paints Los Angeles as a plague of corruption that leave him desperate to escape. “Snowchild” brings back the more hip-hop orientated Abel over a soft, Icey trap beat. The Weeknd is constantly reinventing himself. First, he was the godfather of alternative RnB, the sex crazed drug addict whose songs, whilst sometimes misogynistic and morally flawed, were almost revolutionary. But on “After Hours” he revisits these themes with a more mature perspective, and its tied together under an overarching synth pop sound which makes it by far his most cohesive effort. Every Weeknd fan and fan of music in general will find at least one song on here that will stick with them, his musicality has never been sharper, his writing more relatable and his breadth so wide. This is pop mastery.
Gem – Scared To Live
3. Pray For Paris – Westside Gunn
Probably the most polarizing guy in rap stylistically, Westside Gunn has fashioned himself as the curator of art, and with his famous high-pitched delivery and frequent ad-libs he’s certainly unforgettable. Westside Gunn is by no means “a great rapper” technically, and sometimes even I think his voice can get a little jarring, but he has an almost unparalleled ear, and when he puts his mind to it, he’s dangerous. Westside to me is more of a curator. He knows how to make an amazing album, and he almost directs. This album has it all. Amazing aesthetics, genius features, and some of the best production I have heard this year. “Pray For Paris” was recorded in Westside’s first visit to Paris, his first time leaving the States, where he absorbed the culture and the art alongside Virgil. This album is just so aesthetically meticulous. It’s a departure from the Griselda street grime, and enters the realm of high art, but the mud is still there. This is Tony Soprano on his holiday to Naples, Tony Montana in his mansion, scowling behind his mountain of cocaine, surrounded by million-dollar paintings. This album sounds like luxury high art, colliding with the harshness of street culture. All over this album are gorgeous piano riffs that threaten to instantly turn sinister. One moment it’s an advert for Versace, the next it’s Jaws.
“George Bondo” with Benny and Conway might just be the best song Griselda have ever released. All three emcees are on top form, and sound so powerful over luxurious descending piano keys and crunchy drum programming. That then turns into the first of the two trio cuts “327”. Camo Monk’s almost lo fi beat captures the vibe of a rainy day on the streets of Paris, and Gunn welcomes Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, The Creator into his world to gift the song with their presence. The other trio cut very much pulls away from this theme, and the guests are more conventional for a Griselda project. “$500 Ounces” is a meeting of funerial Alchemist horn sections, Roc Marciano and Freddie Gibbs pens, and Westside Gunn guiding them through. Admittedly, at times it seems like Westside Gunn is amongst the parts of this album that aren’t the most exciting, but you can’t forget that he brings the whole thing together. He had the vision for this album, and to give credit where credit’s due, out of the three projects he dropped this year, his pen is by far the best on this one. He even hits listeners with the fast flow on the “Euro Step”. For me this album was just incredible when it first came out and it’s incredible now. Every song offers something. “Shawn vs Flair” is the perfect example of this album bringing in a big name in the form of DJ Premier, but he falls in line with the sonics of this project, and his drums are tinkled with the glamorous pianos that fall into so many songs on this project. To me this is in the top tier of Griselda projects, because it was the first to offer a real departure sonically from the Griselda sound. The fusions of the opposing ideals of luxury and the street, of high art and cocaine, the good and the bad, Versace and $500 ounces of drugs makes for such an intriguing and immersive experience.
Gem – George Bondo
2. Miles – Blu & Exile
Where to even begin with this album. At 20 songs this album can be an overwhelming mountain to climb, and before you do you expect all the typical tropes that come. You wait for the inevitable lull, and the ensuing frustration that the artist could have been slightly more dispassionate when trimming the album down to the really good stuff. But with this album, that lull, it doesn’t come. Blu & Exile are underground legends. Their soul adventure “Below the Heavens” project that dropped in 2007 has pretty much come to define what a classic looks like in the underground hip hop scene. This album attempts, and wholeheartedly succeeds, to bring Blu and his trusty producer Exile into the domain of Jazz Rap. I can’t say much about this album other than its near perfect. It has more character than pretty much any of the albums on this list. The production throughout is gorgeous, and Blu’s rapping is easily his best so far. Every single track these guys do together on this project is just crammed with emotion, charisma and meaning that it makes it such a joy to listen to. If you want experimental production that makes you feel as though your floating, look no further than “When The Gods Meet”, and you’ll find Blu flowing over the track with an ease that will make all your problems disappear. If it’s a rundown of Blu’s musical upbringing than “Music Is My Everything” is the track for you, with Blu’s storytelling captivating the listener into travelling through his life with him, judging his mum’s ex partners and riding around in the car with his father.
Exile’s production on this project is nothing short of a miracle. He creates an endlessly jazzy landscape that keeps it’s feet firmly planted in Hip Hop, and he finds the perfect way to convey and talk through his beats. Unlike so many producers, you feel his presence all over this record. It really does feel like there are two of them on each track because, there are. Musically this album reaches new heights, and the production is so emotionally charged that it’s impossible not to be moved and to fall in love with this album. Blu proves himself to be an emcee that has no interest in garnering the spotlight or attention, he’s a grown man with bigger problems to deal with, but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the best rappers this year. It’s refreshing to hear an emcee that’s so down to earth, mature and confident. He has a way with his flow where he sounds so effortless over this production, his cadence was built for the microphone and it shows more than ever on this album. If you want pure sentimentality “The Feeling” is everything you need. The song is breathtakingly optimistic, and it just captures and incites a feeling that’s difficult to explain but will only improve you. But if you need to hear Blu just going crazy, then its “Blue As I Can Be”. One of the reasons I enjoy hip hop more than other genres in the current climate of music is because for so many of these artists the pleasure of writing a song with an interesting theme isn’t a lost idea. “Roots Of Blue” is a ten minute epic of a song that see’s Blu detailing the history of black people, covering everything from the Kings of Africa to the enslavement of African Americans. It’s song writing bliss that sets him apart from his contemporaries. The variety on this album is astonishing, and there isn’t a miss in sight.
Gem – The Feeling
1. Circles – Mac Miller
This album isn’t number one because I love Mac Miller, and it definitely isn’t number one out of sentimentality over his passing. It’s number one because it’s the best project that came out this year. When this album was announced I was nervous. Posthumous albums are something I don’t usually like. In the case of so many posthumous releases they come across as an attempt to money grab, and usually end up hurting the reputation of the artist that most likely had very little say in the direction of the album. But all these problems ceased when the song “Good News” dropped a week in advance. This is my favourite song for this year, and I don’t know where I would be without it. It bought me to tears the first time I heard it, and that’s an absolute first for me when it comes to music. Jon Brion teamed up with Miller for this project, and he added the finishing touches that Mac wasn’t able to when he passed. “Good News” is a lowkey track that deals with the image of depression and sadness. It confronts that “I’m fine” mentally head on, the fear that so many of us have within us to admit that something may actually be wrong. Macs writing in his usual style that’s embodied by its pure humanity, he doesn’t wrap what he wants to say in embellishments and cryptic metaphors, he just says it, and there’s such beauty in that. Hearing Mac talk on these topics with retrospect is devastating. It gives you an insight into how he was feeling in his last few weeks, what was on his mind, and it’s difficult to stomach some of the lines that appear throughout this project where he almost sounds as omnipotent. At times it sounds as though he’s talking to us from beyond, telling us he’s ok. “Good News” is set to a backdrop of quiet, plucky guitars, a tapping drum and a dancing electric guitar that slides around the mix, cushioning lyrics such as “I’m so tired of being so tired”.
Mac towards the backend of his career was exploring the fusion of other genres into his world of goofy hip hop, and soon his projects began to incorporate neo soul, RnB and much more and this project acts as a full transition into the alternative, and he does so with grace. The intro track is stunningly soft and ambient, and Miller’s wispy, imperfect delivery is completely isolated, making for an intimate experience. “Complicated” and “Blue World” provide the record with its lift, it’s lightest period. “Complicated” is a perfect example of Jon Brion and Mac Miller’s worlds colliding beautifully to make the relaxed anthem that’s sole purpose is to rid the world of its exterior complications and to “just get through the day”. “Blue World” is the most upbeat moment on the album, and it’s a pleasure to hear the levity in Mac’s voice as he sings over the Disclosure assisted beat. Mac pays tribute to “Love” by covering their song on “Everybody”, an emotional piece on the inevitability of death, set to the unison of Mac’s piano playing and the rolling drums. “Woods” has the most hip hop inspired instrumental of them all, with its nocturnal, ethereal ambience filling the gaps between luscious drum beats. Mac interchanges between singing and rapping on this track, and it’s up there as one of my favourites of the year. Every single song on this album works to present the world with the parting gift of an artist who was just setting off on their artistic arch. The album is simultaneously gut wrenching, life affirming, eery, wholesome, wise and unsure. It’s the best album of 2020. Rest in Peace.
Gem – Good News