As everyone is closing out the year of the mask by sharing their Spotify top songs, I took a look at my list and thought “Is that right?” My number one song this year was Miles Jaye “Let’s Start Over” followed by “Don’t Disturb This Groove” from The System and then we have Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit (My kids favorite this year.) Not exactly the top 3 you might expect from a self described hip hop super fan writing a blog post about the best hip hop albums in 2020.
So what does someone use as criteria when trying to judge an album or song or artist and compose a list? I promise you I did not use a spreadsheet for this but considerations would include the production, samples or original compositions or instrumentation, drums (or lack thereof), lyrical content, delivery & flow. But really, to keep it truthful, it’s all how it hits you in the heart.
If my head is nodding it’s a contender. If I am rewinding to catch a bar it’s a contender. If I can feel it in my chest and it makes me feel nostalgic, it’s a contender. If it has a sound that can be traced back to the golden era, it’s a contender.
I try not to make distinctions between real rap and radio rap. Isn’t all rap real? And in honesty I can appreciate the sing song, emo, half rapping, half mumbling, tripled hi hat, heavy bass, incoherence of many of the mainstream hip hop today. Although, when I reviewed Apple’s 2020 Rap Life playlist I really only felt 2 or 3 songs that I wanted to play over and over again or listen to anywhere besides on the Peloton.
With all of that said there’s a lot of reformed drug dealers that are making top notch music. And while I don’t always love the repeated references to shooters and corner’s served, their is a nostalgia that comes with it along with a delivery that gets me. Also, their music doesn’t sound like they got high on their own supply. And I so often feel that when I don’t respond to the modern day radio hip hop it’s cause most of these dudes are two cups three molly a few bumps of coke and a whole days worth of dab pens deep. (See Quest Love’s skit).
These albums inspired me for various reasons and ultimately, any list created by any person about the best of any music is going to have that subjective quality that is so personal and I aim to share bits of that here with you.
Before we count em down, here are a few honorable mentions: Sa-Roc – The Sharecroppers Daughter; Russ – Chomp EP; 2 Chainz – So Help Me God; The Heatmakers with Joell Ortiz & Fred the Godson (RIP) – Gorilla Glue; Boldy James & The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China.
OFF THE BENCH
10. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
Loooooooong awaited. It’s hard to find a story similar to Jay’s in Hip Hop. His final true and real album release surprisingly featured Jay Z as a co host throughout. The album did not disappoint. Standout tracks included The Blinding, Fruits of the Spirit and my personal favorite Universal Soldier which is featured on the TUB holiday 2020 mix- This Side of the Nuthouse (TSOTNH).
9. Dave East – Karma 3 (Deluxe)
Dave is holding it down for New York with a sound that matches the history of hip hop music in the rotten apple. A devout Muslim and native of the city, so it is only right his current label is Def Jam. Favorite tracks include Envy, Handsome and Thank God.
8. Busta Rhymes – Extinction Level Event 2
I’ll never forget the day I listened to Busta’s track from this album Look Over Your Shoulder on repeat during a run after it was shared on a group text. It was the day I realized that America would have a new president and there couldn’t be a more fitting sound for that feeling then that song. Other notables include the Premier assisted True Indeed (also on TSOTNH) and Master Fard Muhammad.
7. Freddie aGibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
True to form Alchemist and Freddie Gibbs are a match made in heaven like Spaghetti and Marinara. Gibbs brings his bravado and lyrical dexterity with a West Coast edge while Alchemist continues to provide raw sounds that somehow harmonize. Check out God is Perfect, Scottie Beam and my personal favorite Something to Rap About.
6. Blu & Exile – Miles
Another emcee we haven’t heard from in some time returns with a stellar project that makes me want to throw a bible in my backpack (I’m not even all that religious) and don a brimmed beanie with some cargo pants and ride the C train from top to bottom with headphones on. Standouts include Miles Away, All the Blues and True & Livin’.
AND NOW THE STARTING LINE UP……
5. Statik Selektah – The Balancing Act
Boston’s finest Mr. Showoff is at it again. This is one my favorite Statik releases of the last several years. I know it was also a personal work for him and he felt that for everyone sharing the difficulties of the last year with him. I felt that. The album features innumerous contributions from a who’s who of today’s emcees. My personal favorite track Hard Living (also on TSOTNH) features a spectacular verse from Method Man.
Two for one admission with this deadly combination of the Montreal rapper/producer and Jersey City mc. It’s hard to say whose lyrics I enjoy more as both are clever with natural but refined deliveries. Both of these EP’s were released this year and recommended listening includes Good Time, Eyes Wide Shut (another TSOFTN track) and Midsommar.
3. Nas – King’s Disease
If I weren’t being a homer, this album would be at number 6 and Blu and Exile would be here in the 3rd spot. But, this author is a Nas superfan. Admittedly the lyrics are below Nas typical standards. And the album has a primarily commercial feel to it. But I was mesmerized by the melody of Car #85, the snares of Ultra Black, the chorus of Replace Me, the horns of 10 Points and the grandiose seasoning of Spicy.
2. Benny The Butcher – Burden of Proof
Buffalo. Who would have thought? No offense I’ve never been but the home of Jim Kelly and Keith Raniere? Apparently I could catch a bullet for even saying that. I did not expect this place to deliver what one could argue is the best modern day hip hop crew that is bringing back that golden sound with their own creative touches on it.
Though I am not an original adopter of the Griselda Records crew I have been keeping tabs from afar appreciating their esthetic and authenticity as well as their devotion to the crafts and what I consider the lineage of the original sounds of hip hop. So we round out our 2020 list appropriately with two members of their crew who this year impressed me immeasurably.
Benny conjures vivid imagery while wielding a cadence that hits with every syllable. He has fashioned this album. It makes me want to throw on an Avirex and some 40 below Timbs. Neither items I’ve ever actually owned.
The production is outstanding. It has a flavor for every one. The energy is always authentic and spirited whether on the heavy horns of the album opener Burden of Proof or the steady soul of Made It. Where Would I Go continues the trend of what he describes “distinguished gentlemen shit” and on One Way Flight he expertly navigates a beat that could easily have been on Section .80. On Timeless he goes toe to toe with some of the biggest names to do it while dropping “lines from a year ago that ya’ll just catching”. Keep your feet on the ground and a hundred in the ceiling listening to this one.
1. Conway the Machine – From King to A GOD
In reality numbers 2 and 1 could be more like 1a and 1b but I didn’t want to be a fence rider. My reason for Conway taking number one is that when I took the time with this work, I was filled with pure inspiration and awe. I can remember where I was and what I was doing.
I haven’t had the innate creative drive to write a bar, let alone a verse in a long time and listening to Conway made me want to drop 32 like I was Magic.
From King sets things off over a beat has a slow Easy Rider build that Conway flows over to perfection. His baritone is a perfect match for the classic Griselda beats like Lemon (also featuring a dope feature from Method) or the almost Jay Dilla synth vibes of Forever Droppin Tears. Try to tell me that Jesus Khrysis couldn’t be on a Mobb Deep album. On this track he references that “lately I aint even been writing I just be going in” and that is the word on the street that Conway rarely writes and his verses are formulated and delivered without pen and paper.
And the collaboration with Primo on Nothin Less could easily have featured the late Guru. On Raw Oysters he returns to those roots over a dark mangled sample with slow drum work which then leads into the soulful Ameenah’s Van that sounds like it could have appeared on the Blueprint. Serena vs Venus has all the feels of a Dipset love track.
The track I played over and over on that first day I listened was Fear of God, a Hit Boy banger, where he had me with a reference to listening to Mos “Black on Both Sides”. But in this same rhyme scheme he sprinkles in some wisdom “Remain thankful and humble that’s just some rules that I go by”. The vocab is so understated and while it is not someone chopping up big words you need a dictionary for, it is someone creatively and sensibly rhyming. Just rhyming. On your head.
Conway covers all the lyrical bases to me: content, flow and delivery. Yes, he is a street story teller, and I prefer conscious rap. But there is a consciousness about his music that shows in his lines. I look at Conway along the lines of the saying “Religion is for people who fear hell, spirituality is for people who have been there.” Conway has been there and he’s gonna tell you about it over whatever sick beat he’s got in front of him.
I said in the opening, it was all about the imprint the music left on my memory and how many times I found myself going back to the music and Conway wins in that category. Had this album been released in January 19 it might just have knocked Miles Jaye out of my top 3. Muchos Gracias Conway.