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Top 10 rap albums of 2020
February 15, 2021
As paradoxical as it may seem given how the year panned out, rap thrived in 2020. While rap communities felt the deaths of artists MF Doom, Pop Smoke and King Von, among others, artists did not allow the year’s events to keep them from releasing music. From the resurgence of artists like Eminem to the continued success of artists like Lil Baby, rappers released an abundance of music to the 2020 hip-hop scene. And now it’s time to rank it. Continue reading below to see which albums made my list of this year’s ten best.
Contrasting the notable omissions from my 2019 ranking of the ten best rap albums, these projects all have a reasonable case to be considered among the top ten. Take Future’s “High Off Life”: it delivers a smattering of adeptly produced soundtracks — ranging from uninvolved, foreboding piano chords engineered into captivating melodies to the airy bounciness of synthesizer-heavy instrumentals — meshed well with the vocals, including features from accomplished artists Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Durk. Lil Uzi’s “Eternal Atake” has various positive components, too; between the high-energy vocals spliced with fast-tempo, ‘808’-heavy beats and the ethereal nature of tracks throughout the album, Lil Uzi effectively weaves his sanguine narratives into the fabric of each song. “A Written Testimony” by Jay Electronica and “From King to God” by Conway the Machine are both also phenomenal manifestations of the artists’ creativity and respective statuses as lyrical, storytelling mavens. Chika’s “Industry Games” masterfully interweaves pensive lyricism with quick, catchy flows and beats — it’s held back only by its short, 7-song-long tracklist.
Thus, I respect those who feel inclined to put any of these albums into their own ‘top-ten’ list — but I believe the ten albums below transcend the greatness of the four detailed above. And with that said, here are my picks for 2020’s ten best rap albums.
10. “Artist 2.0” — A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie
This selection might come as a surprise. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie has not ascended into the upper echelon of mainstream hip-hop, despite consistently releasing quality music and amassing a trenchant fanbase, yet his latest album — “Artist 2.0” — deserves to be recognized as one of the year’s best. A Boogie’s soothing vocals pair wonderfully with the poignant piano melodies typical in his music; moreover, when he decides to rap over more aggressive, reverberating beats, he does not lose much of this sonically pleasing harmony, combining it with choppy rhythms that let the production shine. Across the album, A Boogie focuses on the trust issues he’s developed as a result of troubles maintaining intimate relationships, explaining how his introverted predisposition and violent lifestyle lead to the emotional discordances in his love life. “Me and My Guitar” and “Numbers” are exemplars of the artist’s ability to blend this aforementioned theme with his unique rapping style, making each song on the project enjoyably listenable. Although I do wish A Boogie more often strayed from his relaxed delivery to experiment with different styles and expand his voice, this album was still his best project to date.
Best Songs: “Me and My Guitar,” “Numbers (feat. Roddy Ricch, Gunna and London On Da Track)” and “Thug Love”
9. “Heaven or Hell” — Don Toliver
Don Toliver’s melodic ‘sing-rap’ style shines brightly throughout this album. Toliver sounds best when paired with higher-pitched piano chords accompanied by dreamy instrumentals, making it unsurprising that many of the album’s songs feature this coupling. “Heaven or Hell” includes viral bangers — like “After Party” and “No Idea” — that make great albums great, but it also has tracks with phenomenal features from artists such as Travis Scott, Offset and Quavo. While there isn’t much thematic depth across the album, the songs don’t feel unbearably redundant. Toliver’s biggest challenge will be continuing to expand his sound and separating himself from artists like A$AP Ferg and Smino, who could’ve released this project without it sounding much different.
Best Songs: “Euphoria (feat. Travis Scott and Kaash Paige),” “After Party” and “No Idea”
8. “The Allegory” — Royce Da 5’9″
“The Allegory,” nominated for Best Rap Album of the Year, is a multi-faceted project, making it the presumptive winner of ‘most polarizing’ on this list. While the album lacks the trap-centric beats popular in mainstream rap music, the abundance of ‘doo-wop-esque’ samples and effective production makes this album a refreshing deviation from the sounds of conventional hip-hop. And, yet, Royce Da 5’9” does not stop there. He builds on these unique beats with the most politically and socially conscious lyrics of any rapper on this list; inspired by the philosopher Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ Royce Da 5’9” raps about the aspects of America life — violence, capitalism, racism and injustice — he believes serve as the country’s genesis, critiquing society’s willingness to ignore this reality by focusing on the less problematic aspects of life that are easier to perceive (skewing our perception of how the world truly functions). While this album can sometimes feel overwhelming due to the various allusions and metaphors within, I’ve ranked it in my top ten because Royce Da 5’9” collaged superior wordplay, complex ideas and novel production in a way that is generally digestible and always enjoyable to listen to.
Best Songs: “Overcomer (feat. Westside Gunn),” “FUBU (feat. Conway the Machine)” and “Black Savage”
7. “Legends Never Die” — Juice Wrld
Juice Wrld’s first posthumous album may be the artist’s most cohesive project to date. The melancholic yet angelic instrumentals throughout the project — augmented by soft piano and violin contributions — give the album’s tracks pleasant foundations which attract diverse audiences, showcasing Juice Wrld’s ability to create music alluring to even those with the most esoteric music tastes. Features from artists along the hip-hop music spectrum reflect this, as Juice Wrld’s songs with artists from The Weeknd to Marshmello to Polo G have few hiccups. Although the songs are heavily underscored by the trite motifs of drug abuse and materialism, the lyrics don’t feel exhaustingly shallow. Juice Wrld makes it clear in songs such as “Righteous” and “Hate the Other Side” that he has yet to unshackle himself from the manacles of self-doubt and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Listening to Juice Wrld melodically detail his struggles is enchanting yet disconcerting; as Shawn Cee, a YouTube music analyst with almost 750,000 subscribers, puts it, listening to this album “feels like watching someone walk off a cliff and there’s this huge, glass barrier preventing you from telling them to stop.”
Best Songs: “Righteous,” “Wishing Well” and “Come & Go” (feat. Marshmello)
6. “Circles” — Mac Miller
Mac Miller wasn’t the best singer in the world. He didn’t have the most innovative beats or lyrical deliveries. For all that he lacked, though, he made up in the emotion he infused in and conveyed through each song, and he reaffirmed this notion in his posthumous album “Circles.” Throughout the album, Miller details the ways in which depression, drug abuse and past relationships have influenced his life, articulating how all three are interconnected and exploring the ways in which he has responded to them — and he does so in a rather dichotomous fashion. While some of the records advance somber, trickling instrumentals (e.g., “Surf”), others boast jumpy beats full of energizing bass claps and drum, cymbal and piano playing (e.g., “Everybody). In this way, it’s almost as if the beats symbolize the various moods Miller projects through his lyrics, strengthening the album’s appeal. Had Miller shown a bit more command on each track and peppered the album with more diversity of delivery, this album would have ranked higher for me.
Best Songs: “Blue World,” “Everybody” and “Good News”
5. “My Turn” — Lil Baby
“My Turn” is phenomenal. Lil Baby’s nasally voice, subtle Southern twang and slurring of words and syllables had already created his ‘mumble rap sound,’ and he could have easily copy and pasted this sound on each track and still received widespread acclaim. He switched up his flows and even mixed in some singing, experimenting with rap styles disparate from the mumble rapping that jump-started his stardom on his 2018 album “Drip Harder.” While his foray in this regard did not always manifest in a sonically pleasing way (“Can’t Explain” is a poorly-produced track), Lil Baby’s attempts at tapping into genre-diverse reservoirs of rap music were largely successful, and the production on the majority of songs ultimately took them over the top. On “Grace,” Lil Baby raps about his newfound wealth and how people now treat him differently because of it, over a beat mirroring this same flamboyance through whistles and violin playing; on “Commercial,” the ominous hook blends smoothly into Lil Baby’s opening verse and sets the tone for the rest of the song; on “Sum 2 Prove,” the ‘galactic’ synth sounds throughout the song give it a lovable weirdness that set the stage for Lil Baby as he raps about the lessons he’s learned after leaving prison. While some of the tracks toward the end of the album are a bit lackluster and rehash much of the same ‘rags-to-riches’ trope often referenced by Lil Baby, there’s a reason the album finished as #2 on Billboard’s Year-End Charts Top Rap Albums.
Best Songs: “Grace (feat. 42 Dugg),” “Commercial (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” and “Woah”
4. “Music To Be Murdered By” — Eminem
Eminem didn’t disappoint. After a brief stint of unsuccessful singles and albums in the early to mid-2010s, Eminem has found success in his 2018 album “Kamikaze” and his “Music To Be Murdered By” (“MTBMB”) album this year. “MTBMB” provides further evidence that Eminem is willing to adapt his rapping style, incorporating aspects of mainstream rap music — faster flows and superficial lyrics — on tracks with catchy, bass-laden beats. This phenomenon may be best observed on the track “Godzilla,” in which Eminem collaborates with Juice Wrld as the two rap about how they turn into “monsters” when day fades into night. Juxtaposed with the playfulness of “Godzilla” is the seriousness of “Darkness,” in which, among other topics, he indirectly criticizes gun control measures in the United States. Of course, Eminem makes his unparalleled knack for wordplay and storytelling known throughout the album, too; he even alludes to his status as such, rapping, “I’m a God to you, y’all better worship the water I walk on” on the track “You Gon’ Learn,” referencing his 2013 song “Rap God” and his belief that even his most criticized music (such as the track “Walk on Water” on his 2017 album “Revival”) is better than any other rapper’s music. Thus, “MTBMB” prominently displays the confident persona fans have come to love about Eminem, and it feels as though this album has reinvigorated Eminem’s appeal among casual rap music consumers.
Best Songs: “Godzilla (feat. Juice Wrld),” “Leaving Heaven (feat. Skylar Grey)” and “No Regrets (feat. Don Toliver)”
3. “Alfredo” — Freddie Gibbs
“Alfredo,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Album of the Year, is much like the food it’s named after: always enjoyable. The album possesses the best production on any rap album this year, an attractive combination of tranquil, breezy chord progressions and well-placed samples. “Something to Rap About” is full of references to both Freddie Gibbs’ and featured artist Tyler, the Creator’s pasts; the former reflects on the lessons he’s learned since disowning the distasteful lifestyle of his past, while the latter alludes back to his early-2010s albums and his artistic growth since then. For someone who was not familiar with Freddie Gibbs prior to this year, I appreciated the narrative-building ability he displayed on this track. Throughout “Alfredo,” Gibbs also shows his ability to morph to any beat he’s rapping over, switching from a menacing, fast flow on “God is Perfect” to a smoother, relaxed presence on “Skinny Suge” to fit the track’s ‘lo-fi-esque’ soundtrack. Ultimately, the only problem with the album is its length; if “Alfredo” had been fifteen or twenty tracks long rather than ten, it likely would have finished higher on the list.
Best Songs: “God Is Perfect,” “Something To Rap About (feat. Tyler, the Creator)” and “Scottie Beam (feat. Rick Ross)”
2. “Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon” — Pop Smoke
Pop Smoke’s posthumous album “Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon” definitely landed among the stars. The album delivers exactly what fans of Pop Smoke came to expect: his raspy, deep voice, bellicose presence and unapologetic lyrics. The album is full of wildly successful songs (with four already having more than 250 million Spotify streams), and each song is tonally distinct. There are records on the album perfect for almost any occasion, whether you’re furious, ecstatic, sad or simply want to relax. Pop Smoke’s unabashed inclination to rap about wealth (cars and clothes), lust and the hardships he’s overcome makes the themes of many of the album’s songs similar; however, his arrogant delivery empowers the listener, making them feel as though they’re conquering the same problems and living through the same moments that Pop Smoke once did. Pop Smoke’s delivery, however, felt a bit disjointed with the beat at times (particularly on “Creature” and “West Coast Sh**”), these faults detract minimally from the overwhelming number of fantastic features and bangers on this album.
Best Songs: “For The Night (feat. DaBaby and Lil Baby),” “Got It On Me” and “Mood Swings (feat. Lil Tjay)”
1. “The Goat” — Polo G
Polo G deserves to be called the greatest of all time. As I was formulating these rankings this year, I tried to think of reasons not to put this album at number one; after all, he is one of my favorite rappers and I even rated his 2019 album “Die A Legend” the best in its respective rankings. Yet, despite searching for reasons to rank this album lower than number one, I couldn’t find any. Polo G (despite lacking the lyrical wizardry of rappers such as Eminem and Royce Da 5’9”) is one of the preeminent storytellers in the rap community right now; he conveys the rawness of his emotions through each song as if he’s having a heartfelt conversation with the listener. Polo G doubles down on rapping about his childhood experiences on this album, detailing the gang violence, death and hopelessness which he experienced growing up in Chicago. His voice harmonizes perfectly with whichever instrumental he’s rapping over — regardless of whether it’s an aggressive or heartwarming track. Considering Polo G consistently puts earworm beats, catchy lyrics and enthralling stories together, it makes sense that there isn’t a single song on the album worth skipping.
Best Songs: “21,” “Wishing For A Hero (feat. BJ The Chicago Kid)” and “Beautiful Pain (Losin My Mind)”