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Best hip-hop/R&B albums of 2020 so far (January-March)

Nick Sligh reviews some of the best hip-hop/r&b albums of the new decade

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2020 has been a year for unexpected and long-awaited releases, including but not limited to the arrival of Lil Uzi Vert’s “Eternal Atake,” the end of Jay Electronica’s musical hiatus and a surprise collab from Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats. Not to mention Childish Gambino’s mysterious “3.15.20” LP, The Weeknd’s highly anticipated “After Hours” and Mac Miller’s posthumous neo-soul venture “Circles,” making the first few months of 2020 very exciting for hip-hop and R&B and setting the foundation for what will hopefully be a great year in these genres. With a confirmed future release of J. Cole’s “The Fall Off” as well as speculated potential releases from Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad, Drake and Ab-Soul (among many others), 2020 has the potential to start the decade off with a line of great releases. For now, here are some of my favorite hip-hop/rap and R&B albums that have been released in the first three months of the year 2020: 

Jay Electronica: “A Written Testimony” (March 13)

After what seemed to be forever, Jay Electronica finally released his debut studio album, and with fantastic success. Expectations have been building for over a decade since the release of Electronica’s wonderful mixtape “Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)” (2007), featuring samples of the film score from the classic movie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). With significant contributions from the timeless Jay-Z, “A Written Testimony” gives the Roc Nation label an extremely strong album that lives up to its mythical hype. Jay Electronica and Jay-Z go bar-for-bar over phenomenal old-school production primarily handled by Jay Electronica himself. One of rap’s most enigmatic figures delivers what is not only a great album, but a deeply satisfying and patiently awaited return. 

Favorite Songs: “Flux Capacitor,” “Universal Soldier,” “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” “Shiny Suit Theory”

Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats: “UNLOCKED” (Feb. 7)

It is no surprise that a collaboration between such a prolific rapper and prominent producer led to a fantastic result: Denzel’s 2020 EP “UNLOCKED” (accompanied by this hilarious and entertaining short film) continues a string of remarkable consistency within his discography. Denzel has shown by now that he is such a talented rapper that his skills will translate to any area of the genre. With a meshing of influences from Kenny Beats’ hard-hitting beats to old-school and boom-bap flows, there is a fusion in theme and style that allows Denzel to fully shine. Hopefully “UNLOCKED” is far from the last collaboration between Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats. 

Favorite Songs: “Lay_Up.m4a,” “DIET_,” “Take_it_Back_v2,” “‘Cosmic’ .m4a,”

The Weeknd: “After Hours” (March 20)

The Weeknd (né Abel Tesfaye) has really mastered how to captivate a massive audience while still pushing the boundaries of mainstream pop. Though much of his career has revolved around his scope of dark pop, his musical evolution and innovation is clear nevertheless. “After Hours” is a wonderful combination of various pop influences and innovations in Abel’s sound. The aesthetic of the album cover foregrounds the melodrama, gloom and chaos that The Weeknd hoped to capture with his fourth studio album. Abel’s newest album hits its aims consistently and gives his highest-quality project since his iconic 2011 mixtape “House of Balloons.” With a cinematic feel from front to back, “After Hours” is as captivating a listen as any album in the spheres of R&B and pop so far this year. 

Favorite Songs: “Scared to Live,” “Snowchild,” “In Your Eyes,”

Mac Miller: “Circles” (Jan. 17)

In both sound and content, “Circles” marks the highlight of the full evolution of Mac Miller as an artist. After starting out as being widely regarded as a “frat rapper,” Mac’s artistic development didn’t really begin until a few full projects into his career. However, his development as a musician was phenomenal. “Circles” serves as both an artistic culmination as well as a send-off with its posthumous release. Far from a typical rap album, Mac’s final full work is much more relaxed and heavily influenced by pop and neo-soul. Focused on love, struggle, meditation and mental health, Mac dives even further into many of the concepts explored in some of his later works including “Swimming” and “The Divine Feminine.” Posthumous albums can be very hit-or-miss, and it is comforting to know that Mac’s legacy was able to go out with a beautiful and soulful collection of music.

Favorite Songs: “Good News,” “Hand Me Downs,” “Right,” “‘Woods”

Click here for a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite hip-hop and R&B songs of 2020 so far (even outside of these listed albums)!

Contact Nick Sligh at nick1019 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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