10. Mac Miller: “Circles”
In both sound and content, “Circles” marked the highlight of the full evolution of Mac Miller as an artist. After starting out 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” served 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, even to the point where it’s hard to consider it hip-hop/rap. 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 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,” “Right,” “Hand Me Downs,” “Surf,” “Circles,” “Woods” and “Everybody”
9. Boldy James & The Alchemist: “The Price of Tea in China”
In a year that saw a handful of very quality rapper-producer collaboration albums, “The Price of Tea in China” showed another example of what can be the result of a great chemistry that comes from there being only one producer on an album. The album contains some of my favorite guest verses that I heard this year, with a nearly flawless trio of features from Vince Staples, Benny the Butcher and Freddie Gibbs across the track list. The Alchemist’s dark and laid-back instruments set the perfect stage for Boldy’s deliveries and storytelling. With articulate verses and clever wordplay, Boldy’s authenticity is on display and helps to highlight the personal and soulful appeal that makes his music special. Boldy James has not only made music for underground fans of his style and delivery, but has made quality albums to be appreciated across the whole genre of hip-hop and to be recognized as some of the best work of the past year.
Favorite Songs: “Scrape the Bowl,” “Surf & Turf,” “S.N.O.R.T.,” “Carruth,” “Pinto” and “Giant Slide”
8. Jay Electronica: “A Written Testimony”
After seemingly forever, Jay Electronica finally released his debut studio album in 2020, and with fantastic success. Expectations had 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” gave the Roc Nation label an extremely strong album that lives up to its mythical hype. Jay Electronica and Jay Z went bar for bar over phenomenal old-school production primarily handled by Jay Electronica himself, forming an effortless chemistry and great result. One of rap’s most enigmatic figures delivered what is not only a great album, but a deeply satisfying and patiently awaited return.
Favorite Songs: “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” “Flux Capacitor,” “Universal Soldier,” “Shiny Suit Theory” and “Fruits of the Spirit”
7. Aminé: “Limbo”
After initially gaining fame through very lighthearted music, “Limbo” saw Aminé keep some of the lightheartedness and energetic nature that made him popular while also developing much more mature and existential perspectives. “Limbo” seems like a fitting piece in the evolution of an artist, the compilation following a comedown and mature steps taken following initial fame and prominence. Aminé has always been a figure who is simply fun and entertaining to listen to because of a certain swagger, persona and energy. On his second studio album, he was able to maintain all of these positive traits while still developing his musical ability and the quality of the album that he was putting out. “Limbo” certainly doesn’t feel just like a typical or random collection of tracks, but rather a project that helps to pinpoint just where Aminé is at this point of his career and his life.
Favorite Songs: “Burden,” “Fetus,” “Roots,” “Woodlawn” and “Pressure in My Palms”
6. 21 Savage & Metro Boomin: “Savage Mode II”
The sequel to the two artists’s 2016 collab, “Savage Mode II” highlighted (once again this year) the rewards of continued chemistry between rapper and producer. 21 Savage has truly evolved as an artist over the last five years, and is now in a position where he has become a consistently great rapper with some of the best albums made over the last few years across the genre. Metro Boomin’s production is consistently incredible throughout the project, creating some of the best beats of the year. Both 21 Savage and Metro Boomin are prominent and impressive artists on their own, but are nearly unstoppable when they come together. The Morgan Freeman skits are a surprising, welcome and hilarious touch to an album that does not contain many flaws in it. From the artwork to the style and production selections, “Savage Mode II” does an incredible job of paying homage to the music that 21 and Metro grew up admiring, while also innovating to cement themselves as one of the elite current rapper-producer duos.
Favorite Songs: “No Opp Left Behind,” “Glock In My Lap,” “Runnin,” “RIP Luv,” “Slidin” and “Mr. Right Now”
5. Benny the Butcher: “Burden of Proof”
“Burden of Proof” arguably strayed further away from the vintage Griselda sound than any project released by the group in recent years, and with wonderful results. With triumphant and soulful production, mostly handled by Hit-Boy, Benny’s third studio album brought an uplifting balance to the recent Griselda discography. Hit-Boy’s production combined old-school and modern sounds, resulting in a project that perfectly fits Benny’s style while also allowing him to expand into new sounds and artistic spaces. Though he maintains his hardcore hip-hop sound, which has been refreshing in the modern landscape of rap, Benny didn’t allow himself to become complacent in old sounds and innovated to show a creative agility that should serve him well in the future.
Favorite Songs: “One Way Flight,” “New Streets,” “Burden of Proof,” “War Paint,” “Sly Green” and “Legend”
4. Blu & Exile: “Miles”
At this point, Blu is truly a legendary underground rap figure with an expansive discography featuring acclaimed projects like “Below the Heavens,” “Her Favorite Colo(u)r” and “Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them.” Despite a high bar for expected quality set by prior projects, “Miles” firmly established itself as some of the best work of Blu’s career. Exile, Blu’s frequent producer/collaborator, provided a fantastic array of jazz and soul-influenced beats that fit Blu’s style and sound perfectly. Especially over recent years, it is hard to reconcile an album containing over 20 songs, as it is usually done now as a ploy to increase streaming numbers. However, there was not a song on this entire project that was out of place, and every song contributes strongly to the story that Blu & Exile are portraying. The storytelling, soul, samples, versatility and creativity led to “Miles” really being one of the best releases of the year and one of the best projects in the discography of both Blu and Exile.
Favorite Songs: “Requiem of Blue,” “Miles Away,” “Troubled Water,” “African Dream,” “True & Livin’,” “The Feeling,” “Dear Lord” and “The American Dream”
3. Spillage Village: “Spilligion”
“Spilligion” truly captured the essence of 2020 in a masterful and incredibly creative way. With layered production, genre-bending sounds and heartfelt performances from so many talented artists, the album felt like exactly what fans needed at the time of its release. With a mostly Atlanta-based roster that features incredible artists such as rap duo EARTHGANG, R&B superstar 6LACK and JID, the result of the collective’s 4th project was, unsurprisingly, very high quality. One of the most impressive aspects of the album was that so many genres and musical elements were combined in an experimental fashion, but done so effortlessly that it is hard to even notice at points. Every song serves a specific purpose and contributes a unique aspect to the entire album. There are certain moments of darkness and harsh reality in parts, but there is also an underlying theme of spirit and hope. “Spilligion” not only highlighted the harsh realities of 2020, but it also created a beautiful and uplifting listen that made an odd year feel a little bit more warm and hopeful.
Favorite Songs: “Baptize,” “Hapi,” “Shiva,” “End of Daze,” “Mecca,” “Jupiter” and “Oshun”
2. Conway the Machine: “From King to a God”
Conway continued Griselda’s incredible run of projects over the past two years with the release of “From King to a God.” Conway was on point throughout this gritty but refined project, showcasing a high-level delivery that creates a cinematic listen and vintage feel. Conway’s debut studio album is certainly one of the strongest efforts from the Griselda trio, and helps to cement Conway as more than just a rapper with brief trends of underground acclaim. The undeniable presence, great writing and authenticity of the album make it a must listen and nearly flawless for what it is aiming for. “From King to a God” is more than just a cult album for fans of Griselda’s style; it is an anthem that belongs in the top tier of album releases from last year.
Favorite Songs: “Seen Everything But Jesus,” “Spurs 3,” “Dough & Damani,” “Lemon,” “Nothin Less” and “Front Lines”
1. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist: “Alfredo”
Freddie Gibbs has definitely become one of the most underrated and simply one of the best current rappers. Less than a year after his fantastic 2019 album “Bandana,” Freddie returned with another release that is my top rap album of 2020 (and debatably his second “best album of the year” in a row). With production handled exclusively by The Alchemist, the chemistry on “Alfredo” is in near-perfect sync from front to back. Soulful, jazzy, dark and atmospheric, this album provides a trademark project for the discographies of both Gibbs and The Alchemist. On “Alfredo,” Gibbs continues to showcase an elite flow, fantastic presence and technical prowess that very few rappers can compare to.
Favorite Songs: “God Is Perfect,” “Something to Rap About,” “Frank Lucas,” “Babies & Fools” and “Scottie Beam”
Click here for a Spotify Playlist of some of my favorite songs across the year 2020.
Contact Nick Sligh at nick1019 ‘at’ stanford.edu.