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The 20 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2020

As hip-hop’s capacity for expression from all corners widens, its popularity and proliferation only intensifies.

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Run the Jewels
Photo: Jonathan Mannion

In 2020, few genres were more representative of a plethora of perspectives: from Bad Bunny’s thrilling reggaeton tributes to Burna Boy’s Nigerian dispatches to Lil Uzi Vert’s S.O.S. messages from the far reaches of the galaxy. Likely spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, we were graced by a surge of late-year surprises: 21 Savage & Metro Boomin and the Daveed Diggs-fronted trio Clipping took their October release dates to heart and embraced a horror influence, and preeminent sadboi Kid Cudi dropped a long-anticipated sequel in the 11th hour. (Still waiting on you, Playboi Carti.)

This was also the year the music category that has long excluded and diminished women started to finally feel a little more egalitarian, with new feminist icons like Megan Thee Stallion and Rico Nasty rightly gaining recognition as some of the most commanding MCs working in the genre. As hip-hop’s capacity for expression from all corners widens, its popularity and proliferation only intensifies. Funny, how that works. Charles Lyons-Burt



Limbo

Aminé, Limbo

On the intro to his 2018 mixtape, Onepointfive, Aminé demonstrated his talent for verbose, declaratory scene-setting. The opening track of the Portland-based rapper’s second studio album, Limbo, likewise sets the stage with a chopped soul sample-driven beat and telling references to hip-hop’s past (Jay-Z) and future (Rico Nasty), while unfurling some of the moral concerns plaguing his thoughts. By the album’s halfway point, though, it’s clear that this isn’t just another throwback, as Aminé’s full-bodied beats, vintage soul samples, and clever rhymes set him up as a deserving carrier of Kanye West’s torch. In melding traditional hip-hop form with just the right amount of modern trap verve, Limbo makes the case for Aminé, if not as the next great rapper, then as a pop-rap workhorse. The album proves that he can keep pace with his contemporaries while drawing on the history of the genre in ways many of today’s innovators are unconcerned with engaging. Lyons-Burt



YHLQMDLG

Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG

With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral “Safaera” is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from today’s hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunny’s rightful place in the Urbano canon. Sophia Ordaz



The Price of Tea in China

Boldy James and the Alchemist, The Price of Tea in China

The Price of Tea in China is Detroit rapper Boldy James’s third studio album and his third collaboration with production polymath the Alchemist. In detailing the coldblooded environment of the inner city, Boldy’s sedate baritone at times comes off as unbothered and at others as completely in control. The Alchemist’s minimalism and ear for subtle melody bestow these songs with the air of a heist movie, like on “Pinto,” where a longing string sample makes Boldy’s recollections of moving drugs seem like mythology. On “Surf and Turf,” Boldy proves his skill as a storyteller and wordsmith, disclosing what it’s like to deal drugs while having a son to care for and spewing impressive verses laden with both internal and end rhymes: “Drunk in a Porsche, trunk full of corpse/Dump with the torch, run for the Ford, love for my daughter/Son was the fourth, youngin’ on the run with a warrant/Mother-fuck a judge and the courts, club full of dorks.” Ordaz



Visions of Bodies Being Burned

Clipping, Visions of Bodies Being Burned

Clipping’s fourth studio album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is an aural assault. The experimental horrorcore trio is schooled in the dynamic shading of scary movies. Unidentified banging, thumping, and thundering noises break stretches of silence throughout the album, creating an unsettling percussion to match the frantic rhythm of Clipping’s beats. Cam & China’s “This bitch boss” refrain on “‘96 Neve Campbell” drips with the impetuous attitude of a Ruby Rose or Bree Runway, but William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes’s sparing industrial production grants them an infernal air. Throughout, Daveed Diggs’s dramatic, almost spoken-word delivery takes dominion over these riveting, unforgiving instrumentals. Ordaz



Wunna

Gunna, Wunna

Gunna’s sophomore effort, Wunna, was conceived and partly recorded in Montego Bay, a model that recalls the recording process of Kanye West’s 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Travis Scott’s recent Astroworld, the latter of which features vocals from Gunna. Perhaps the rapper’s approach is a nod to Travis, and by extension Yeezy, but more likely, he was attempting to summon the artistic energies that made both of those albums so successful. What he achieves is something closer to Scott’s crowd-pleaser than the untouchable grandeur of West’s album, but Wunna occasionally manages strokes of ingenuity. Like that of his mentor and executive producer Young Thug, Gunna’s approach to verse marries intricate wordplay and melodic rhyming. He offers one of the smoothest flows in rap, so slur-y and easygoing it approaches R&B yet still retains the clipped poetry of hip-hop. Lyons-Burt



Jp4

Junglepussy, Jp4

A sorely underrated treasure of underground NYC rap for the better part of a decade, Junglepussy, a.k.a. Shayna McHale, further deepens her catalog of startlingly consistent anthems of self-pride with Jp4. McHale’s latest easily takes the cake for the funniest rap album of the year, as she strings together vivid imagery with wry observations from a perch of satisfaction (“This reminds me of the time I realized I’m that bitch/It was a beautiful day birds was chirpin’ and shit,” she reminisces on “Out My Window”). She also finds time in the album’s expeditious 28 minutes to take stock of her vulnerabilities, like her admittance on “Arugula” that “sometimes I give into sadness, sometimes I go to sleep.” No matter the level of confidence evinced, though, Jp4 boasts a bottomless supply of hilarious vocabulary and truth bombs, ingeniously deployed in McHale’s skeptical deadpan. Lyons-Burt



Yellow Tape

Key Glock, Yellow Tape

Key Glock bookends Yellow Tape, his fifth mixtape, with two tracks that dig a little bit into his personal life and family—with particular reverence for the grandmother who raised him. But they’re unrepresentative of a tape that’s entirely a pose. Still, if you’re going to spend 45 minutes with ruthless tough talk, do so with “Mr. Glock.” The Memphis-based rapper nods to fellow Tennesseans Three 6 Mafia more than once, though his style has more in common with West Coast hip-hop than the postmodern inventiveness we’ve come to expect from the Southern variety. He enunciates words emphatically and raps on the beat rather than supplanting it with strange flows or sing-song dalliances (he also interpolates California mainstays Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on “Dough”). On Yellow Tape, the well-crafted array of menacing beats—which include plaintive guitars and liquefied horns—go down easy, and Glock’s baritone makes a lasting impression as he twists nursery rhymes and lodges lots of animal puns. There will be time for reflection later; for now, Yellow Tape’s infatuation with shiny surfaces and its author’s alpha status is enough to satisfy in this preternaturally assured 22-year-old’s hands. Lyons-Burt



Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

An improvement on the middling Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ and the misguided Speedin’ Bullet to Heaven, the third installment of Kid Cudi’s cult-favorite saga sees the emo rap auteur updating his sound—hums and talk-singing abound—with frequent ad-libs and maximalist psychedelic trap production that recalls Travis Scott’s Astroworld. The resurrection of Mr. Rager, Cudi’s jaded, drug-addled alter ego, brings about ambivalent emotional outcomes; often, it’s impossible to discern whether or not Cudi enjoys or abhors the drugged-out haze. On “Tequila Shots,” dazzling synths underpin his brutally self-aware observations: “See, it seems I’ll never learn/I won’t stop ’til I crash and burn/Tell my mom I’m sorry.” Elsewhere, on “The Void,” he sounds triumphant as he sings about the inevitability of falling into an emotional abyss. As always, Cudi’s exploration of altered states is loyal to their volatility. From one moment to the next, epiphanies give way to self-delusion. Ordaz



My Turn

Lil Baby, My Turn

Lil Baby’s flow is a heat-seeking missile, single-minded and powerful, and it could be construed as monotonous if the material on his second album, My Turn, wasn’t so rich and his performances so magnetic. The rapper, a.k.a. Dominique Jones, spends the album locked in the present, acting like he indeed has “something to prove,” delivering tight, diamond-cut verses that are, to his benefit, more worked out than that of his trap peers. Some of these cronies (Gunna, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug) appear alongside him, but never extraneously. It helps that the album is equipped with punchy, top-shelf beats, insistent snares, and crystalline edges. In terms of subject matter, My Turn is Jones’s most romance- and family-focused effort to date, though the pull of intoxicants and sparkling jewelry is never too far off. Leave it to Lil Baby to make a gargantuan, blockbuster hip-hop album still feel like the work of an underdog. Lyons-Burt



Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2

Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake (Deluxe Edition)

While other rappers made albums, mixtapes, or loose collections of songs that were barely an excuse for either, Lil Uzi Vert fashioned a self-contained world with Eternal Atake. A suis generis, nearly two-hour double album, its first volume is a tonally uniform concept album about Uzi’s abduction from Earth by aliens. Its second edition, released one week later under the name Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2, is a spilling over of the material that didn’t make it onto the first cut, that while more incongruous, contains some of the most lively material on either part (“Moon Relate” being a deeply strange highlight). Taken all together, Eternal Atake’s saturation of cultural references, endless interpolations of other songs (including Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”), and transportive, Day-Glo aesthetics congeal into something like an Afrofuturist statement piece. Not all of it works, but one is hard pressed to identify a more purely enjoyable and imaginative space in hip-hop this year than Uzi’s croaking, wailing chipmunk trap. Lyons-Burt

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