By Nick Sligh
20. CHIKA: “INDUSTRY GAMES”
“INDUSTRY GAMES” established Chika as one of the most promising, exciting and talented young artists in all of rap. 2020 was a year that saw women excel across all areas of rap, and Chika more than held her own in making soulful, conscious and quality hip-hop. Though the EP is short and sweet, clocking in with a 20-minute long runtime, “INDUSTRY GAMES” still packs enough quality to be one of the better projects of the year. Only 22 years old at the release of the project, Chika has proven that she is clearly one of the most technically proficient rappers around by showcasing a versatility of flows and styles and navigating them with ease. The lyricism throughout is very impressive, and the rapping is consistently skillful. Already a great artist, Chika will undoubtedly continue to grow and blossom into one of the most prominent and talented figures in all of rap.
Favorite Songs: “DESIGNER,” “ON MY WAY,” “CROWN,” “SONGS ABOUT YOU”
19. Nana: “Save Yourself”
It’s not often in modern rap that people releasing debut projects are already in their thirties, but Nana definitely defies the trend of debut rappers being very young. Despite the late formal entrance into the genre, Nana has been making and recording music for nearly 20 years. It’s evident that “Save Yourself” shows a technical process and lyrical ability that is not common for rappers so early in their formal career, combining impressive writing and fascinating storytelling to create a coherent debut album. “L.A. Times” and “Save Yourself” are just a couple of the best examples of Nana’s lyrical and narrative abilities, and just a few of a handful of tracks that reveal Nana as an intriguing artist to follow. Though not necessarily creating any entirely new sounds, Nana shows an atypical ability to smoothly refine a debut project so well.
Favorite Songs: “L.A. Times,” “King’s Blvd 2,” “Heaven & Hennessy,” “Save Yourself,” “On My Momma”
18. Kota the Friend: “EVERYTHING”
Kota the Friend’s “Everything” provides a soothing and easy-listening project that has a very “summertime” feel to it. Relaxing beats, introspective lyrics and a soothing feel have come to be staples of Kota’s music. Although this album might not be the most innovative or technically profound release, it still provides a collection of great music that is widely enjoyable and well executed. “Everything” simply offers an album with a great vibe that makes it hard to not smile while listening to it.
Favorite Songs: “Away Park,” “B.Q.E,” “Morocco,” “Always”
17. Westside Gunn: “Pray for Paris”
Westside Gunn, Griselda member and proud Buffalo, New York native, delivered an album that highlights his past strengths while simultaneously expanding into new artistic spaces. Westside Gunn’s voice has certainly become known as one of the easiest to recognize in rap, but he has been very innovative in expanding his overall sound with elaborate production choices for recent projects. Across the album, Westside Gunn’s sound, production selection and feature choices help to set up an atmospheric listen. The phenomenal production across “Pray for Paris” and the impressive guest features serve a large part of what makes the album such an intriguing listen and robust addition to a strong run of recent projects for the Griselda rapper.
Favorite Songs: “George Bondo,” “327,” “Allah Sent Me,” “Party wit Pop Smoke,” “$500 Ounces”
16. Black Thought: “Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able”
It’s unreasonable to expect anything but quality projects from Black Thought, one of the greatest lyricists of all time. The third installment in the “Streams of Thought” series features tremendous lyricism, solid production and generally enjoyable music. Black Thought continuously shows an ability to develop his style and sound without disregarding all of the factors that make him an all-time special emcee. Simply put, it is very difficult to find rappers that can consistently rap at this high of a level for 30 years, and “Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able” makes it obvious that Black Thought has no signs of slowing down or declining as an artist.
Favorite Songs: “Good Morning,” “Steak Up,” “Magnificent,” “Nature Of The Beast”
15. Tkay Maidza: “Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2”
Tkay Maidza is an eccentric figure who is becoming a must-know in hip-hop. “Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2” was one of the most charismatic, unique and versatile releases of the entire year, and it is certainly not lacking in quality. The 24-year-old Australian artist has already shown incredible potential, with a variety of passionate and entertaining performances coming from the front to the back of the project. Effortlessly blending pop, R&B and rap, Tkay shows she is an artist who is purposefully pushing boundaries of genres and defining a new sound that should carry a prominent career for her in the coming decades.
Favorite Songs: “Awake,” “You Sad,” “Don’t Call Again,” “Shook”
14. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats: “UNLOCKED”
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” continues a string of remarkable consistency within his discography, producing at a quality and quantity over the past few years that is hard to match. 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’s hard-hitting beats to old-school and boom-bap flows, there is a fusion in theme and style that allows Denzel to fully shine. “UNLOCKED” is another strong addition to Denzel’s catalog and continues to prove why he should be mentioned amongst the best current rappers.
Favorite Songs: “DIET_,” “Lay_Up.m4a,” “Take_it_Back_v2,” “Cosmic.m4a”
13. Boldy James & Sterling Toles: “Manger on McNichols”
“Manger on McNichols” is an epitome of the fact that some of the best art emerges from pain and adversity. The intensity of the project is consistent, and the result is one of the best albums of the year: dark, soulful, personal and captivating. Boldy’s grimy rapping finds flawless fits over Sterling Toles’s production, and the chemistry leads to poignant storytelling and incredible themes. Introspective stories about trauma and tragedy, great writing and lyricism and atmospheric beats truly make “Manger on McNichols” a great project that is certainly one of the most special from the year.
Favorite Songs: “Mommy Dearest,” “Why Are You In Her(E),” “The Middle of Next Month,” “Welcome to 76,” “Medusa,” “The Safe”
12. Armani Caesar: “THE LIZ”
The “First Lady of Griselda” was able to take the vintage sound of the group and bring a new perspective and interesting twist to make an album worthy of praise. A proficient rapper and undeniable presence on the mic, Armani Caesar’s style and swagger are a perfect fit with Griselda and provide a hard-hitting, menacing album that slides into the group’s collective discography effortlessly. Coherent and complete, Armani’s latest album provides a consistent feel and paints a vivid picture of the Buffalo rapper’s life and style. With hard-hitting beats and some of the most formidable verses of the year, “THE LIZ” cements Armani Caesar as a rapper to be taken very seriously.
Favorite Songs: “Countdown,” “Gucci Casket,” “Mani Moves Freestyle,” “Drill a RaMA,” “Ginger Rothstein”
11. Run The Jewels: “RTJ4”
Rap duo Killer Mike and El-P, Run the Jewels, delivered their fourth continuation of their eponymous series with great timing and success. In the middle of troubled times in America, these two provided an album that was as skilled as it was insightful. An album addressing poignant issues such as racial inequality, police brutality and media bias, Run the Jewels certainly does not shy away from the uncomfortable truths about the social and political order that Americans are facing. The chemistry between the two rappers was fantastic as always, and the production is innovative and refreshing throughout. “RTJ4” is an anthem that will serve as a timestamp for the state of America in the turbulent times of 2020.
Favorite Songs: “JU$T,” “yankee and the brave (ep. 4),” “ooh la la,” “walking in the snow,” “out of sight”
Click here for a Spotify Playlist of some of my favorite songs across the year 2020.