Yeah, admittedly we’re a bit late to the game with this years half year round-up but as you are no doubt all aware, 2020 has been an interesting year, both for hip hop and for the wider world. As such, we’ve spent some time in the middle of this year to just take a breath, educate ourselves on the societal shifts that have been happening (and are long overdue) and ultimately support our communities in the ways that we could. That’s not to say we weren’t keeping our ears finely tuned to the plethora of fantastic hip hop releases over the past few months. 2020 has been an outstanding year for releases already with some heavy hitters dropping – Jay Electronica with his long awaited debut and RTJ4 coming at an incredibly important time – and more than a few releases forcing us to ask the question, is 2020 the year of the duo?
We’ve had plenty of time to think due to lockdown, so check out our thoughts on our favourites of the year so far below and let us know what you guys have been listening to!
1. The Four Owls – Nocturnal Instinct
The 3rd album from UK super-group The Four Owls (made up of Leaf Dog, BVA, Verb T and Fliptrix) holds no punches. Each MC brings his own unique style and personality to craft an album as fun as it is impactful. Showcasing their verbal acumen with unapologetically British accents as well as impeccable thumping production from the group’s own Leaf Dog, this delivers track after track, listen after re-listen. Collaborations from both sides of the Atlantic come courtesy of Smellington Piff, Kool G Rap, RA the Rugged Man (who we interview here) and Masta Killa as well as the DJ Premier produced “100%”. These US legends are catching wind of UK talent. Do your ears a favour and follow suit.
2. The Leonard Simpson Duo – LSD
The pairing of the commanding vocals of Guilty Simpson, with the psychedelic influenced production of Leonard Charles, was not something I knew I needed. But here we are 5 months after its release and I’m still drawn back to this record.
3. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
The long (very long) awaited record from Jay-E unexpectedly arrived this year. After the initial commotion/discussion subsided the album could breathe and stand up on its own merits, of which there are many. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another decade for more.
Honourable Mention: Gaptoof – Looks Like Rain
The Irish producer’s debut is resplendent with a scintillating range of styles and sounds. Fellow Soft Boy Records artists Kojaque and Kean Kavanagh (and others vocalists) assist by adding additional layers but powerful instrumental tracks prove Gaptoof can speak volumes through his music alone.
1. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
It’s been a long time coming but Jay’s debut album was worth the wait. Electronica goes step for step with Jay-Z across all ten tracks. Both are in top form, combining complex rhyming structures and technical excellence with a spiritual message that should speak to everyone, atheist or otherwise. A deserved number one.
2. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
Relegating this to second place was a painful decision and I could easily see it being my ‘Album of the Year’ with a bit more time. ‘Alfredo’ is a lyrical masterclass with Gibbs simultaneously deconstructing and celebrating the Mafioso stereotypes that hip-hop is so in love with.
3. R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages
It’s almost upsetting how effortless Ferreria is on this album. He delivers outrageously complex rhymes, packed with references and asides, and makes it seem as natural as breathing, even when talking about the mundanity of household chores. A very special album.
Honourable Mention: Mac Miller – Circles
It says a lot about how good 2020 has been (for music, if nothing else) that ‘Circles’ isn’t in the top three. Mac Miller leaves us a haunting release, given additional poignancy by the circumstances surrounding it. ‘Circles’ is a stellar farewell from a singular talent, an album that needs to be absorbed slowly to be fully appreciated.
1. Sadistik – Delirium
This might only be a 6-track EP but I’d be kidding myself by not putting it at number 1. In terms of style, Delirium leans more towards the Sadistik of Altars (2017) than Haunted Gardens (2019). It includes last year’s single ‘Pet Sematary’ and the sickeningly-appropriate banger ‘The Plague’. For a beautiful descent into melancholy and fear, see ‘Hell is Where the Heart Is’. As a whole, this is a seething display of Sad’s talents and oozing confidence. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
2. R. A. P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages
This is a delightful listen, a smooth masterpiece with endless quote-ables. R. A. P. Ferreira’s word-association games are the best in the business, and his spoken-word-poetry-night flow is as fresh as it is unpretentious. Hopping from pop culture to philosophy and back again, this record is fun, banal (see ‘Laundry’), deep, and philosophical (see ‘Dust Up’) all at once.
3. Ka – Descendants of Cain
Possibly the best concept album of the year, Ka’s utterances on street life, violence and immorality are raw and unrelenting. The gruff, monotonous delivery offers a steady drip of dark images with an overarching biblical theme, held together beautifully with a stripped back production.
Honourable mention: Armand Hammer – Shrines
I couldn’t break into the duo’s previous record, but the talent was obvious. ‘Shrines’ is closer to my taste, and for all Elucid has to offer on the mic, I’m still just in awe of billy woods. The dude tears sound bites to ribbons on this. The guest spots are a nice bonus. I’ll be catching up with it all year, and I’m sure it will stay in the top 5.
1. Mac Miller – Circles
An absolutely heartbreaking triumph of an album, which serves as an emphatic full stop on the transformation of a young, bright eyed Easy Mac to the worldly wise and creatively prophetic Mac Miller. This record lets you behind the curtain of Mac’s outward persona time and time again with its emotive lyricism and the wonderful soundscapes that were perfectly crafted with the help of the acclaimed Jon Brion. More so than just an album of the year, this could very well be an album of a lifetime!
2. Boldy James & The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China
This album dropped in February and really kicked the year off in style. Boldy drops some fire bars with such a relaxed effortlessness that you could almost believe he can hit this upper level without even trying. Star turns from the likes of Benny The Butcher (Scrape the Bowl) and Evidence (Grey October) and of course the stellar production from The Alchemist throughout means this will stay in rotation throughout the year.
3. Run The Jewels – RTJ4
Dropping at the most perfect (or perhaps imperfect) time in 2020, Run The Jewels soundtracks a difficult time in human existence with such fervour. If you’ve only been blown away by Killer Mike’s verse on ‘walking in the snow’, then you haven’t been listening properly. El and Mike drop so many lessons on what is arguably the most focused and impactful RTJ project to date.
Honourable Mention: Stalley – Pariah
Massillon, Ohio’s favourite son dropped this project with little fanfare and it seems to have been unfairly overlooked. Stalley always comes correct with his smooth wordplay and delivery and the Blue Collar Gang capo has an uncanny knack for crafting consciously considerate music which you can still bang in the whip.
1. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
An album ten years in the making will struggle to meet expectations. Jay Electronica, a lowkey great without ever putting it all together at least once, has existed as a mythical, sleeping giant figure for a decade plus. Myths are seductive, even romantic – but the problem is, they aren’t real. And divorced of the hype, ‘A Written Testimony’ (with Jay-Z in the sidecar) is worth your time. Jay Electronica’s raps are laced with openness and vulnerability, ruminating on faith, flaws and self-doubt. Shawn Carter, on the other hand, shows why he’s arguably the greatest to ever do it. If there is any objective truth in this rap shit, it’s Jay-Z’s ability to be the fucking man when he shows up. While it’s understandable to chip away at Jay Electronica’s artistic integrity for leaning on Hov to get the job done, cynicism seems sour in the face of something this authoritatively good.
It took ten years to get to our ears; perhaps it’ll be another decade before we appreciate it for what it is?
Undeniably imperfect, but resoundingly real.
2. Armand Hammer – Shrines
Elucid and billy woods remind everyone of their freakish ability to summon calm and efficient brilliance. Complex, gritty rhyming paired with twinkling, bucolic soundscapes – this is fresh air for 2020’s smoked-out lungs.
3. Mac Miller – Circles
The bittersweet epilogue in Mac Miller’s all-too-brief story. Circles is a beautiful, burdened journey through Mac Miller’s reality; your heart will be a touch heavier with each listen. Peace to you, Malcolm.
Honourable Mention: Ka – Descendants of Cain
It feels disrespectful to relegate this project to a mere “honourable mention”. ‘Descendants of Cain’ is a walkthrough of rapping mastery from Brownsville emcee, Ka. I’ll justify Ka’s omission from the podium by spreading the word about this album’s excellence in due time.