Despite the few grumblings and complaints of snobbish music writers and ungrateful fans, 2020 was a fantastic year for Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop Wired has painstakingly put together a collection of projections we personally bumped and found value in over the past 365.
End of the year lists, in all honestly, really are just the opinions of the writer or writers who contributed to this said list and shouldn’t serve as a baseline in one’s musical enjoyment. Of course, we didn’t get a chance to listen to all of the music that dropped in 2020 because it’s simply impossible. In our case, we loved so many projects that we had to split our list into two parts.
Lists have also become a thorn in the side for the artists scrambling to be seen and heard in a turbulent and crowded industry upended by the realities of the pandemic, all but destroying the profitable roads of touring and impacting merchandise sales. We certainly empathize with all the hungry artists out there vying for a chance for their creations to get their due recognition, and we definitely understand the anger if any of those acts feel slighted.
Let’s get this out the way. The first part of this list consists of a lot of Griselda, and for good reason. The Buffalo, N.Y. collective created some of the year’s best releases and the acclaim is deserved. There are also lesser-known names who crossed our pathways thanks to the DSPs giving us infinite pathways to artists who made joints similar to the songs we enjoyed the most thus putting us onto new discoveries.
We are not listing these names as a favor to industry pals or in some manner of becoming friendly with the acts we’ve named. To hammer the point home once more, these are the projects that caught our ears, turned our heads, and added seasoning to our lives. If they’re on this list, they got plenty of run and will continue to get that from us in the coming year.
Enjoy part 1 of Hip-Hop Wired’s Top Projects of 2020 below. Please note that the projects below listed are in ALPHABETICAL ORDER, not ranked.
21 Savage & Metro Boomin – Savage Mode 2
Sequels are either a grand extension of their predecessor or a lesser form of the original body of work. Luckily, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin have the benefit of connection and experience to bring to the masses something that feels fresh without bypassing their previous works. 21 and Metro aren’t aiming to change the world with their music. But it does feel fair to mention that they show a dedication to sounds that made them both famous while also carving out new lanes.
Armani Caesar – The Liz
Griselda doesn’t make any bones about what kind of musical outfit they are. As Westside Gunn says, they create art. In that case, the most brilliant stroke of the year for GxFR is Armani Caesar’s surprising The Liz album. Armani’s voice is more sultry than one would expect over the dusty production and it isn’t just head-nodding lyrical displays. She also gets into other flows and schemes without missing a beat. Coupled with a look tailor-made for Instagram and Griselda’s First Lady is locked and loaded for stardom.
Benny The Butcher & Hit-Boy – Burden of Proof
Since Tana Talk 3, Benny The Butcher has been solidified in the eyes of many despite having projects and verses that were just as good prior to that release. With Burden Of Proof, the Black Soprano Family chieftain taps in with Hit-Boy for a cohesive project that details the familiar ups and downs of Benny’s tough Buffalo, N.Y. upbringing, along with the triumphs of a life well-lived despite the barriers. It is The Butcher’s most complete body of work thus far and it still feels like he’s got much more to say in the years to come.
Blu & Exile – Miles: From An Interlude Called Life
Whatever needed to happen in Blu’s life to bring him back with his partner Exile has culminated into his most focused project in years. Miles is a rarity in Hip-Hop where impatient fans and stuffy music critics will say an album is too long instead of just hitting skip when needed and appreciating the effort. We can comfortably say that for its length, Miles delivers over and again due to Blu’s ability to lock into a topic and Exile in giving his partner the best backdrop to do so.
Boldy James & The Alchemist – The Price Of Tea In China
The Price Of Tea In China opens with one of the most soul-stirring beats ever from The Alchemist in “Carruth” but what makes it more effective is the deadpan delivery of Boldy James. The Detroit MC doesn’t paint the brightest portrait of the Motor City across the album, but the grim realities are matched against the necessity of a relentless grind. Now a member of the growing Griselda team, Boldy Blocks has certainly arrived, but he still stands as his own man. Mafia, what else?
Bub Rock – A Peace Of Mine
Lakeview, Long Island’s Bub Rock hails from the same stern cloth shared by his L.I. brethren in SmooVth, Hus KingPin, ROZEWOOD, and others. What makes Bub unique is his distinctive delivery and an uncanny ability to depict both his fearlessness to express himself as his voice sometimes crackles in frustration. You can’t help to FEEL Bub Rock’s rhymes because he gives you no choice in the matter. That’s skill.
Busta Rhymes – Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God
In some ways, Busta Rhymes’ 2020 sequel to his 1998 classic in the first Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front outshines its predecessor. Much of that is the sheer will along with the ability to conform and command that Bussa Bus has always possessed. At 48 years of age, and proudly at that, the Dungeon Dragon proved that Hip-Hop would be significantly duller without his brash and bold personality coupled with the lyricism that he’s given the masses over the past three decades. If one can make an album this good in the later stages of their career, we can expect to see more of the New York mainstay.
Ché Noir- As God Intended
Buffalo’s Ché Noir, like many MCs of her ilk, had a relentless run in 2020 with projects alongside her Trust Army compatriot 38 Spesh along with a self-produced project. However, Noir’s impeccable storytelling and visual penmanship were at their apex with As God Intended, with production provided by Detroit’s Apollo Brown. At the age of 26, Ché Noir’s only ceiling is the one she creates for herself and we don’t see that happening any time soon.
Chris Crack – Good Cops Don’t Exist
Chicago’s Chris Crack released four albums in 2020 and any of them could’ve made this end of the year list. Our favorite is the irreverent Good Cops Don’t Exist and it follows a formula that Crack has perfected: lyrics buzzing with personality and visuals, production that borders on soulful and mournful all at once, and the always-surprising singing ability of the project’s main star. But like every Chris Crack album, the producers, unannounced guests (frequent collaborators U.G.L.Y. Boy Modeling, Cutta, Rome Streetz, etc.) also figure heavily.
Conway The Machine – From King To A God
Conway The Machine is, without doubt, the heart of the Griselda collective. Able to do any flow on the planet and still sound comfortable, the Buffalo rapper showcased his wide range and earnest delivery with From King To A God. With features from Method Man, DeJ Loaf, and his family members in Griselda, La Machina is always the primary reason you’re tuned in. What is especially notable about Conway is that it doesn’t appear he’s delivered his greatest work, which is amazing considering how solid FKTG is.
Elcamino – Walk By Faith
There’s something in the water in upstate New York and Elcamino is one of the young leaders of that movement. Like the Griselda collective, Elcamino was mentored by and connected to the late DJ Shay and that guidance is apparent in his music. While he can do the expected boom-bap, Elcamino is also able to switch flows and styles no matter what the audio setting. Over his several projects to drop this year, Walk By Faith feels like Elcamino’s most complete work and we can’t wait to hear more.
Eto – The Beauty Of It
New York Hip-Hop has always existed outside the five boroughs, and Eto adds to that legacy by way of his stellar album, The Beauty Of It. While Eto delivered another worthy candidate for this list in Eto Brigante, this project was more of what we’ve come to expect from the Rochester, N.Y. star. If hard beats and harder rhyming is your speed, Eto has you more than covered.
Flee Lord – In The Name Of Prodigy
Flee Lord put a lot of pressure on us to select one of his 12 projects he dropped monthly this year. While we truly have an affinity for No More Humble Fashion which dropped in November, the hardworking MC honored his mentor, the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep fame, in the best way he could. With In The Name Of Prodigy, Flee locks in over production from Havoc, sounding at home over the Queensbridge beat smith’s canvas. Features from Busta Rhymes, Conway The Machine, Raekwon, and Prodigy’s daughter Santana Fox among others round out the project.
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist weren’t unfamiliar with one another as evidenced in 2018’s excellent Fetti, a stellar collaborative project with Curren$y. Carrying the rapping load on his own, Gibbs, always capable and laser-focused, sounds even more dialed in across Alchemist’s signature loops and instrumentation. Gaining a Grammy Awards nomination for the project this year also lifted the profile of both men who have toiled as legends in the so-called underground for years.
Hus KingPin – Gunpowder
Hus KingPin isn’t nearly mentioned enough when it comes to the revival of dusty loops, heady lyrics, and darker moods. The Hempstead, Long Island MC raps in a muted, matter-of-fact style and that was most evident on Gunpowder, one of three projects he released this year. Prolific as he is prophetic, Wavo’s cold-hearted bars offer a glimpse inside the mind of a pioneer in the grit and grime side of modern Hip-Hop.
Jamal Gasol – The World Is Piff 2
Buffalo, N.Y. has been hailed as the epicenter of underground Hip-Hop’s current dominance, but Jamal Gasol believes that Niagara Falls has something to add as well. The upstate block captain dropped two strong projects this year along with singles and features, but the standout is The Word Is Piff 2. Across 12 tracks, Gasol doesn’t glorify his street dealings but he certainly doesn’t shy away from the life that influences his art.
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
The year 2009 was when Jay Electronica was crowned king, and the shadow of his epic “Exhibit C” track still hangs over him. After failing to deliver his promised debut in Act II: The Patents of Nobility, the elusive New Orleans MC reappeared and was reenergized by delivering his debut a decade later than hoped. A Written Testimony isn’t perfect and the appearance of Jay-Z across the album might have it scoring lower by some accounts. But when it works, it does tremendously. Hopefully, Jay Electronica decides to give us more before walking away for good.
Oddisee – Odd Cure
Oddisee is one of those rare artists that has always managed to capture moments in his music whether he delivers a capable verse or allowing his production to take center stage. With the Washington, D.C. native’s most recent release, Oddisee once more draws listeners in by creating an album that embodies the moment the entire nation and much of the world has been living through due to the ongoing pandemic. Bittersweet moments are peppered throughout and Oddisee, always the griot, stands tall once again.
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma, and Divorce
Open Mike Eagle did what all great artists do and turned his tragedy into art. While that’s a typically bland breakdown of every breakup album ever released, the Los Angeles, by way of Chicago, MC isn’t your typical protagonist. Somewhat fueled by his divorce, the cancellation of his Comedy Central show, and the inevitable battle with Father Time, OME is still witty, bright-eyed, and funny as ever but there is some weight in those zippy jokes that isn’t connected with his impending dad bod. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
Planet Asia – Trust The Chain
The potent combination of Planet Asia and Buffalo’s 38 Spesh has been known over the years and the Fresno, Calif. MC positioned himself as one of the best to ever do it. The Gold Chain Military honcho and the Trust Army leader put their best foot forward with Trust The Chain, a clever nod to their respective home bases. If you’ve never heard a Planet Asia, this is a great start among his many offerings of 2020.
Stove God Cooks – Reasonable Drought
Stove God Cooks first emerged on the scene as part of Busta Rhymes’ Conglomerate outfit under the name Aaron Cooks. Reemerging as Stove God Cooks, the Syracuse MC and vocalist linked with the superbly talented Roc Marciano on the boards for his debut album, Reasonable Drought. Carrying the lyrical load for nearly 40 minutes, Cooks jumps between razor-sharp brick talk and soulful crooning with expert ease.
The Cool Kids (Sir Michael Rocks & Chuck Inglish) – Volumes
A good number of Hip-Hop acts that have thrived over the past decade owe a huge debt to The Cool Kids. The pairing of Sir Michael Rocks and Chuck Inglish has given fans a lifetime of innovative styles and sounds but it appears that they’ve only scratched the surface. We’re not sure if Volumes counts as an album as it reads like a collection of the group’s singles they’ve released since reuniting a few years back. However, with more music promised to come early next year, listeners will be rewarded by the cleverness and capabilities of the dynamic duo.
The Professionals (Oh No & Madlib) – Self-Titled
Madlib is something of a household name due to his work with Freddie Gibbs and his classic joint project with the late, great J Dilla. However, his young brother Oh No, also a producer, flexes his capable rapping ability as he’s done in times past with fellow rapper-producer Alchemist across their joint Gangrene projects. What separates Oh No’s lyrics on this project, it’s beyond obvious he’s comfortable over anything his big brother throws his way. While there isn’t much of a theme on the album, it doesn’t need one when it sounds this good.
Run The Jewels – RTJ4
El-P and Killer Mike have nothing else to prove as Hip-Hop artists, but both are still in the midst of Hall of Fame careers. With their fourth offering as Run The Jewels, the unlikeliest duo in all of the genre once more take all the bottled rage, eye-level awareness, social observations, and unbridled fury through and blend it into something that sounds like the times that we’re in. Hip-Hop artists rarely have second acts as potent as the one we’re seeing unfold with the two, and, as was made obvious in RTJ4, there’s more work on the horizon.
Skyzoo – Milestones
Brooklyn’s Skyzoo has never released an average project. Gifted with a voice that cuts through over any beat you throw his way and lyrics that feel like a major motion picture, S-K-Y-Z-O-O once more delivers with Milestones. The project is inspired by the man born Skyler Taylor becoming a father himself, completing the circle of life that he’s often rapped about regarding himself and his father. While short, it says quite a lot across seven tracks and deserves repeated spins.
Ty Farris & Bozack Morris – Wired Different
The one MC and one producer formula is a format that has returned to great effect in 2020. Detroit wordsmith Ty Farris and Bozack Morris add to that fantastic tally with a focused effort in Wired Different. Farris raps with all the coldness of the D as one can imagine but Bozack’s production propels him forward in 3-D format. Ty Farris dropped two other projects this year, but his latest set is definitely his most potent.
Vel The Wonder – Trophy Wife
The idea that a woman rapper has to lead with sex appeal remains one of Hip-Hop’s big missteps but there are women in the game who still have lyrics on deck. Vel The Wonder, who hails from the West Coast and now based in New York has the rare gift of being able to use her vocal instrument with forceful effect without compromising her art. Vel has one of the busiest flows we’ve heard in some time and she has a gift for aggression and subtlety all in the span of one song. Be on the lookout for her.
VRN Hayes – Serene
Los Angeles has a long list of great artists that have used the city as a backdrop. But in recent times, few MCs have captured the energy of the famed city clearly as VRN Hayes on his 10-song project, Serene. With his distinctive West Coast drawl, VRN Hayes doesn’t glorify the violence of his hometown but he doesn’t turn away his gaze either. VRN dropped off a three-pack titled Tatu that’s definitely worth the spin.
Westside Gunn -Pray For Paris
Westside Gunn, the brains behind the Griselda movement, deserves every accolade there is to give in Hip-Hop, starting with his masterful play in setting up his brother Conway The Machine and cousin Benny The Butcher to craft their own paths. That left room for him to remain the genre’s best curator, finding talent from all ends and making magic. Of the three project Westside dropped in 2020, which we should add all deserve a place here, Pray For Paris is perhaps the best of them and even writing that feels like it could be challenged.
Willie The Kid – Capital Gains
Over the past decade and a half, Willie The Kid has leveraged his confident pen and connections in Hip-Hop to great effect. Cosigned by the likes of DJ Drama, DJ Big Mike, and others, the Grand Rapids artist delivers more of his luxurious flair for the English language on display with Capital Gains, one of two albums he released for the year. Across 10 tightly constructed tracks with features from Action Bronson and Roc Marciano, Willie The Kid has another golden feather in his cap.
Hip-Hop Wired’s Top Hip-Hop Projects Of 2020 Pt. 1 was originally published on hiphopwired.com
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