Below are some of my favorite hip-hop highlights of 2020. Check the following playlists, albums, and videos for my personal recap of the year.
The Latest Playlist: 2020
*Track listing at bottom of post
For hip-hop in 2020, the crown belongs to Griselda Records. Label founder Westside Gunn, brother Conway the Machine, and cousin Benny the Butcher have been creating plenty of buzz over the last few years, but in 2020 they made a statement. With 5 albums between the 3 of them, a debut album by their female counterpart Armani Cesar, and a Griselda-released mixtape from the tremendously productive Boldy James, 2020 has been Griselda’s most productive year to date.
Despite making a sudden splash on the scene, these emcees have been rapping for a long time. While the way they rap is characteristically unique in it’s graphic descriptions and hard-hitting punch lines, their music has a foundation in a classic style of hip-hop, garnering them no shortage of praise from hip-hop legends across the map.
Through expert storytelling, Griselda artists include explicit details of criminal activities, and while they don’t necessarily glorify the lifestyle, they are not in the least bit apologetic. They don’t shy away from rapping about the details of their lives before rap fame, the struggle they endured to get here today, or boasting on their success that could only have come from unwavering perseverance.
One of the most compelling stylistic features of Griselda artists is their footing in a Mafioso aesthetic. This theme runs through all label members, and is one of the notable characteristics that unify them as a collective. It is not surprising that Griselda has been referred to as “the next Wu-Tang Clan”, which has been recognized even by members of the Wu-Tang Clan themselves. This claim is not just an acknowledgement of success in 2020, but an understanding that Griselda is set to be an iconic generational influence on the culture.
Lo-Fi Lethargic Raps
Over the past 5-7 years there has been a growing sub-genre of hip-hop characterized by low-energy rapping over lo-fi, sample-central beats. Counter to stereotypical rap braggadocio, artists in this style write more genuinely introspective. Despite their lethargic leaning tone, they write in a way that is both deeply expressive and seemingly therapeutic. The consistent themes are self-reflection and social observation from an introverted perspective.
The beats can be easily digestible, or in many cases can break rhythmic norms, providing an embrace of dystopian aesthetic. This approach gives the artists flexibility to maintain a refreshing level of unpredictability. It may not be a coincidence that 2020 was such prolific year for this style of hip-hop, being a year defined by isolation, depression, and dystopia.
I often refer to this style of hip-hop as “the other mumble rap”. While this sounds nothing like the commonly referred to sub-genre of mumble rap, these artists undeniably rap in a way that could be described as mumbling, but are nonetheless far more articulate as lyricists. There have been about a dozen or more notable artists operating successfully within this style, and while there is a common thread connecting them all, each has their own unique stylistic contribution. Above are 6 projects within this style from 2020 that I recommend from Medhane, MIKE, Redveil, Demahjiae, Chester Watson,and Navy Blue.
Boldy James Banner Year
I’ve declined to explicitly choose an album of the year for 2020, but if any artist should be recognized for their productivity it would have to be Boldy James. This year James dropped 3 collaborative projects with The Alchemist, Sterling Toles, and Real Bad Man, as well as a mixtape released by none other than Griselda Records (The Versace Tape).
Boldy James has been on the scene for over a decade, but his presence has never been more prolific than it was in 2020. Between the 4 projects, Boldy generously delivered 47 tracks (not including features), easily making 2020 his banner year. Despite the abundance of production, he didn’t cut corners. There are almost no intros or skits, and The Price of Tea in China & Real Bad Boldy are legitimate contenders for album of the year.
Like other Griselda artists, Boldy is a great storyteller, and his laid back flow guides the listener through a mesmerizing tour of illicit struggle raps. Each project has a different producer and corresponding sound, demonstrating James’ versatility and ability to adapt without compromising his own style.
Below are some of my favorite hip-hop highlights of 2019. Check the following playlists, albums, and videos for my personal run-down of the year.
The Latest Playlist: 2019
*Track listing at bottom of post
Notable Albums of 2019
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
The most universally accepted rap album of 2019 was Bandana from Freddie Gibbs & Madlib. Legendary producer Madlib brings some of his finest work to this highly active Bandana instrumental. The samples are chosen brilliantly and blended masterfully, contributing layers of drama and grandeur to Freddie Gibbs’ tales of criminal lifestyle. Gibbs raps about life struggles through the lens of his experiences in illicit activities, primarily drug dealing. He provides generously detailed stories and references of past experiences with criminal activity, women, and law enforcement. Though he raps with the demeanor of an experienced member of organized crime, Gibbs doesn’t shy away from expressing his emotional state as he describes struggles he experiences as a result of his lifestyle. It is not at all lost in his message that his involvement in criminal activity is born out of a struggle to survive in an environment that doesn’t care if he succeeds, fails, lives, or dies. With outstanding production and heavy descriptive lyrics, Bandana is already considered a classic.
Billy Woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places
For years Billy Woods has been one of the most prolific emcees in the subgenre of abstract hip hop; 2019 was his banner year. Hiding Places represents a thoroughly developed and sophisticated Woods on the dark beats and crushing drums of his perfect producer counterpart: Kenny Segal. Hiding Places from Billy Woods & Kenny Segal is not an album for passive listening. Over the course of this project, Woods weaves in and out of fragmented thoughts, metaphor, memories and tangents. This is a deeply personal and emotional Woods, as he speaks passionately in heavy reflection of his childhood and life experiences. There is a fine line between rapping and spoken word, and Woods is constantly playing with that line. The overall aesthetic of this collaboration is dark, ominous, aggressive, and a bit uncomfortable. Hiding Places can be off-putting at first, but listening to this project in its entirety is a truly captivating experience. I also recommend checking out Billy Woods’ other 2019 release: Terror Management.
Kota the Friend – Foto
The album I listened to the most in 2019 was Foto from Kota the Friend. Kota the Friend has to be the most genuinely humble emcee out. Foto is not a complex album musically, conceptually, or otherwise, but it is a true gem for fans of boom bap conscious rap. Through mellow melodic delivery Kota speaks frankly about his life, relationships, and the importance of family. Kota is nearly void of rap braggadocio. The occasional boasting is done with a subtlety that points more towards a comfort in himself rather than any self-righteous arrogance. Foto is highly optimistic from front to back, and Kota speaks from a place of content and joy, consciously leaving hardships in his past. The beats are simple but solid. People looking for more innovative styles and sounds might find the album a bit repetitive, but I personally cant get enough of it.
Below are some of my favorite hip-hop highlights of 2018. Check the following playlists, albums, music videos, cyphers, and rap battles for my personal run-down of the year.
The Latest Playlist: 2018
*Track listing at bottom of post
Notable Albums of 2018
Avantdale Bowling Club – Avantdale Bowling Club
New Zealand based rapper Tom Scott is backed by a full live band for this collaborative hip-hop jazz-fusion project. The sound is raw, high-energy, and feels completely improvisational. The tracks are very long and have multiple jazzy instrumental sections that transition from one sound to the next, making 8 tracks sound like at least a dozen songs. Scott’s ability to keep up with the band while maintaining clear vocal projection is one of his most impressive qualities. With each musical transition, Scott manages to adapt the style of his flow to the band. His lyrics are not especially complex, but they come off as commendably honest and personal. Scott raps primarily about his own personal experiences and memories, which are often accompanied by vivid descriptions. He also raps about friends, relationships, and other aspects of his life, at times progressing into unorganized contemplative tangents.
Black Thought – Streams of Thought Vol. 1 & 2
In his first major solo project, 47-year-old veteran MC and The Roots front man, Black Thought blessed 2018 with a 2-part project that made clear he is still in his prime. Thought plays the role of an elder instructor with every bit of vigor from his youth. Commanding attention with his powerful cadence, every line is delivered like it’s for a packed stadium. Vol. 1 was a June release primarily produced by 9th Wonder that served as an explosive re-introduction of who Black Thought is and what he’s about. Black Thought is uncompromisingly conscious and ultra-political, frequently referencing history, spirituality, and current events from local to global levels. Vol. 2 was a late November release produced by Salaam Remi, and debatably album of the year. With the same energy and intentions in Vol. 1, Vol. 2 was a platform for Thought to get into more specific issues, such as the pharmaceutical industry, industrial prison complex, school shootings, and gang violence to name a few. This is classic hip-hop with clean production. For any old heads in 2018, Streams of Thought Vol. 1 & 2 are true gems.
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
Only 3 years after his last release, Earl Sweatshirt sounds like he has aged a decade. Despite the album title, this is Earl’s most stylistically and conceptually cohesive project to date. The entire album carries a lethargic dystopian energy as Earl raps with a low muffled tone over mostly uplifting, dusty lo-fi samples. Over 15 very short songs, Earl offers admirably genuine pictures of his life and psychological condition. Despite the undertones of depression, he presents himself as sarcastically optimistic or at least apathetic. Most of his expressive content is not direct, but layered in metaphor and wordplay.
Jericho Jackson – Khrysis & Elzhi are Jericho Jackson
This project is another gem for classic heads. Renowned independent rapper Elzhi flexes clever east cost lyricism over headnodic beats that feel like the cold winter streets of New York City. Throughout the project Elzhi delivers an onslaught of continuous wordplay, creative punch lines and metaphors. Despite the lyrical density, his message is crystal clear, which is in a word, ‘struggle’. He makes clear that his life has been dangerous and difficult, that he has little trust for anyone, that he is “Self Made” and as an underground veteran, has worked for everything he’s earned. Elzhi is often known for his proudly Nas-influenced style, which is expectedly evident in this project. In a way Jericho Jackson feels a bit like a classic Nas album.
It’s that time again for my review of the last year in hip-hop. Below are some of my favorite highlights of 2017. Check the following Playlists, Albums, Music Videos, Cyphers, and Rap Battles for my personal run-down of the year.
The most wonderful surprise of 2017 was the trilogy of albums released by self-proclaimed Internet boy band, BROCKHAMPTON: SATURATION I, II, & III. My initial intention was to comment on just one of the three albums, but it would have been irresponsible not to address the entire trilogy as a whole, as well as the group’s overall significance in 2017. Formed by Kevin Abstract in an online Kanye West fan forum, the group consists of about a dozen members, each with a unique style, blending together in an incredibly impressive and complex dynamic. With a collective 48 tracks (only 8 of which are skits), and accompanied by about 20 music videos, this trilogy is and has everything, leaving little to be desired.
Forming a description of this music is anything but simple, as there are completely different styles from track to track, and even from section to section within each track. Some parts are difficult to digest; others contain a beautiful harmonizing of melodies, while others tiptoe into more classical rap and lyricism, and at times display styles that resemble poetry and spoken word. SATURATION pulls from a wide variety of genres and uses a plethora of sounds culminating in a project that is uniquely refreshing and absolutely genuine. The overall energy is invigorating and exiting in a way that is reminiscent of early Odd Future, but far more sophisticated.
In general, the content covers everything relevant to 2017 without beating the listener over the head with anything in particular. The message oscillates between introspective, contemplative, and outwardly conscious to a far less enlightened self-indulgence, which is clearly self-aware, dabbling in a comedic irony. The more time you spend with this music, the more there is to unpack and appreciate.
Milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!
2017 brought yet another magical release from the rap poet alchemist/sorcerer: Milo. With the opening track titled “Poet” and closing track titled “Rapper”, Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! Actively addresses the natural crossover of poetry and rap, particularly in Milo’s own music, which has become commonly referred to as the Open Mike Eagle coined genre of “Art Rap”.
The instrumentals on this project are mostly mesmerizingly mellow (mmm…), leaving room for Milo’s message, which is, as usual, contemplative and inquisitive on many levels. Deeply saturated with abstract metaphor and philosophical references, as in all of Milo’s music, momentary distraction is unforgiving to the listener, and understanding his messages require undivided attention.
Much of this project seems to be a path of self-discovery through music as well as observation of others, and finding his place relative to those observations. He frequently employs blatant critique of stereotypical rap clichés and shortsighted arrogance, though his disses would clearly be lost upon the targets of his criticism. Well aware of his intellectual prowess, particularly in the field of hip-hop, intelligence and vocabulary become his bragging points: “The point is my vocabulary pays my rent”.
Though I wouldn’t consider this Milo’s best project to date, it is undoubtedly successful, solidifying his place as one of my favorite artists.
lojii & Swarvy – Due Rent
Any classic head can appreciate “Due Rent”, the latest double “disc” album from lojii & Swarvy. Lojii tackles the age-old hip-hop theme of hustling for cash, striving to overcome struggle, and then rapping about it. With a low-energy Godfather/Mafioso type East Coast flow, lojii casually floats over a bed of dark lo-fi instrumentals that clearly display Swarvy’s ability to orchestrate sample mastery.
Accurately self described as “rap vintage”, each track is only about 2 minutes and is essentially a different take on the same point: lojii going about his day to day trying to find a way to pay rent and make it to the next day, with of course, a bit of classic hip-hop braggadocio peppered in. Overall the album is cohesively satisfying, with a seemingly low budget production and message, lojii & Swarvy show that they can make dope hip-hop with any budget, reminiscent of an earlier time in underground hip-hop production.
Notable Music Videos of 2017
Open Mike Eagle feat. Sammus – Hymnal
Open Mike Eagle – Happy Wasteland Day
Jay-Z – The Story of O.J.
Brother Ali – Never Learn
BROCKHAMPTON – SWAMP
Notable Cyphers of 2017
Method Man & Black Thought on Sway in the Morning
Harry Mack Freestyles in Venice
Notable Rap Battles of 2017
Bigg K vs Pass (KOTD)
Dizaster vs Oxxxymiron (KOTD)
Oops vs Xcel (KOTD)
The Latest Playlist 2017:
Brother Ali – Never Learn
lojii & Swarvy – Northern Organix
Marlon Craft – The One (Intro) / TTE 1
Milo – Sorcerer
Danny Watts – Things We Have To Do
Devin the Dude – Can I
Open Mike Eagle Feat. Sammus – Hymnal
Little Simz – Backseat
J.I.D. – General
Billy Woods – Snake Oil
BROCKHAMPTON – TOKYO
Araabmuzik feat. Illmind – Selda
Anti-Lilly & Phoniks feat. Mariel – Sunshine
Cyhi The Prynce – God Bless Your Heart
Kendrick Lamar – FEEL
Loyle Carner – Ain’t Nothing Changed
Cunninlynguists – Mr. Morganfield & Ms. Waters (A-Side)
Sampa The Great – Protect Your Queen
Homeboy Sandman – Bless Up
The Doppelgangaz feat. Tnava– Roll Flee
Kota the Friend – Lawn Chair
Joey Bada$$ feat. Styles P – SUPER PREDATOR
Smino – Spitshine
Blu & Exile – Party of Two
Quelle Chris feat. I, Ced & Mndsgn – Popeye
The Underachievers – Cobra Clutch
Statik Selektah feat. Run The Jewels – Put Jewels On It
I didn’t post anything in 2016 but there was plenty to post about. Below are some of my favorite highlights of 2016. Check the following Playlists, Albums, Music Videos, and Rap Battles for my personal run-down of the year.
The Latest Playlist: 2016
*Track listing at bottom of post
Notable Albums of 2016
First I should mention that there were many important albums worthy of writing about that came out last year, including respectable projects from Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, J Cole, Danny Brown, Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, Kool Keith, De La Soul and Common just to name a few. Despite the plethora of albums to review, I felt compelled to write about two in particular.
KA – Honor Killed the Samurai
Honor Killed the Samurai is a concept album that has a strong cinematic quality and captivating story. The tensely ominous instrumentals set the scene for Ka’s character; a wise and experienced criminal who has done everything necessary (often regrettably) to survive his dangerous environment. The “Samurai” is referenced both thematically in the instrumentals and with direct samples of old Samurai movies.
Ka does not proclaim himself a Samurai or even reference it in his lyrics. Instead he tells detailed stories of having a difficult upbringing and committing “grimy street crimes”. While shooting people and selling drugs are not new topics in hip hop, Ka addresses them with a heavy heart, minimizing the glorification and highlighting the guilt and repercussions. Ka’s character is more of an elder Mafioso who is contrasted stylistically with the concept and sound of Samurai. Through expert-level multisyllabic flow structure, Ka tells vivid tales of his difficult past, warning those faced with the challenges he once was.
So I stood on mine, during the hoodest time
Was a nightmare, felt like life here was as good as dying
We was born in the thorns, few arose
Once a town’s noose, now in soundproofs pursuing golds
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
After Run The Jewels & Run The Jewels 2, the expectations for Run The Jewels 3 were raised to unreachable heights, but nonetheless Killer Mike & EL-P delivered. Scheduled for January 2017, they blessed us all with an early release in December, making RTJ3 my favorite and debatably the best hip-hop album of 2016.
First of all, the production on this album (like its’ predecessors) is incredible. The RTJ sound is uniquely discernable from anything else in existence, and EL-P’s signature apocalyptic production has nearly reached it’s final form. Every beat is deeply layered with industrial, hazardous, and robotic rhythms, turntable scratching, voice samples, intricate drums, and a variety of carefully placed sound effects & synths.
Much of the lyrical content on RTJ3 is the same off the wall, do whatever the fuck we want style seen in RTJ2. In addition, this project covers a wide variety of content from track to track, at the forefront of which are politics and current events. Many of the braggadocios lines on this project serve dually as classic hip-hop boasting and a reflection of the arrogant bully-type attitudes seen in many political leaders. A prime example of this is in the DJ Shadow music video that RTJ featured on for the track “Nobody Speak” which was released in August. When Run The Jewels 3 came out a lot of the lyrics made me think of this video (see below).
Personally I believe this duo is the best thing happening in hop-hop right now. They sound and feel not only current and relevant, but also necessary. The energy on this album is through the roof, and I believe it reflects the sentiment of a culture that is up in arms over the political climate, searching for an outlet just shy of rioting.
Notable Music Videos of 2016
DJ Shadow feat. Run The Jewels – Nobody Speak
Kemba – The New Black Theory
KOOL KEITH feat. MF DOOM – Super Hero
Notable Rap Battles of 2016
Danny Myers vs B Dot (LABG)
Iron Solomon vs Dizaster (KOTD)
The Latest Playlist 2016:
Kemba – The New Black Theory
Open Mike Eagle & Paul White – Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)
It’s been a minute since my last post but today is a big one. Below are some of my favorite highlights of 2015. Check the following Playlists, Albums, Music Videos, Cyphers and Rap Battles for my personal run-down of the year.
The Latest Playlist: 2015
*Track listing at bottom of post
Notable Albums of 2015
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Without question, the most important album of 2015 is To Pimp a Butterfly. It is as timely and uncompromisingly relevant as it is uniquely produced. The instrumentals are a well-choreographed mix of Funk, Jazz and R & B melodies that mimic and support the energy of a passionately expressive Kendrick Lamar.
As Kendrick navigates through emotional highs, lows, and moments of clarity, he gives listeners a poetically journalistic perspective of his experience being black in America. He continuously expresses his frustration throughout the album, often referencing slavery, politics, and police brutality. A few of the tracks veer off course and a few stand out as optimistic perspectives on his more painful songs, but his performance is exemplary and he didn’t hold back a thing in terms of his message. There are endless pages that could be and have been written breaking down To Pimp A Butterfly as a significant piece of art reflecting race in America.
BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul
Now that I touched on the most praised album of the year, I want to focus on what I believe is the most slept-on album of 2015. Wu- Tang veteran Ghostface Killah teamed up with the Toronto-based music group BADBADNOTGOOD in February to create Sour Soul, which has become my personal favorite album of the year (or at least the one I listen to the most). Ghostface’s lyrical content on this project is far from enlightening as he confidently boasts of sex, money, and power while threatening violence and domination, but the outcome is highly entertaining nonetheless.
What makes this project such a great success is it’s cinematic quality. BADBADNOTGOOD uses jazz to create instrumentals that feel like movie scores in beat format. Much of the album is strictly instrumental, and Ghostface’s appearances are well placed. He uses this platform to act out his character as a gun-slinging mobster in full rapper machismo and he fits the part perfectly. The instrumental interludes seem like time passing between verses, which become like different movie scenes with each appearance made by Ghostface’s character. I recommend listening to this album from front to back. Over, and over, and over.
Henry Canyons – Canyonland / Milo – So the Flies Don’t Come
Two other notable albums that I would place in my top 5 for the year are Milo’s “So the Flies don’t come” and Henry Canyons “Canyonland”. I touched on these albums earlier this year and you can find those posts here:
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt
One more album I wanted to draw attention to for 2015 is an instant introverts classic. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt. To be honest I’ve never been a big Odd Future fan with the exception of a few tracks and one member. Earl Sweatshirt caught my ear with the track “EARL” back in 2010 (at which point he was 16). It was gritty, offensive, and reckless in typical Odd Future fashion, but Earl’s flow and wordplay was so uniquely dope that it didn’t matter. Now in 2015 Earl shows listeners a more mature and genuine picture of his life and struggles.
The entire project has a kind of mopey depressing energy supporting the album concept, and the beats are pretty minimal. The title of the album says it all. Earl proceeds to elaborate on why he doesn’t like people: men, women, rappers, industry executives, promoters, friends, enemies…the list goes on. Earl is at the top of his game in terms of flow and wordplay complexity and provides an impressively compelling case for why he doesn’t like people. It is exciting to hear Earl Sweatshirt’s music develop over the years as he is beginning to express more genuinely than his younger self.
Notable Videos of 2015
Below are some Music Videos, Rap Battles, and a Cyphers that were notable highlights for 2015: