50 Best Rap Albums of 2020
I don't need to get into all the reasons why 2020 was a bad year, but it was an extremely good year for rap. We got great records from all across the board, from exciting new spins on '90s boom bap to futuristic sounds we haven't heard before, from veterans to newcomers, from all different regions. It was hard to keep up with all the great rap released over the course of the past 12 months, and even narrowing this list down to 50, we had to leave off some records we love, and we probably still haven't even heard some of this year's great rap albums. Read on for the list, ranked from #50 to #1, with commentary starting at #25.
What were your favorite rap albums of 2020?
50. Ovrkast - Try Again (do more)
49. Bbymutha - Muthaland (the muthaboard)
48. Chucky73 & Fetti031 - Sie7etr3 (Sie7etr3)
47. Sheff G - One and Only (Winners Circle/EMPIRE)
46. Flee Lord - 12 new albums (LordMobb)
45. Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin - Fly Siifu's (Lex)
44. Small Bills - Don't Play It Straight (Mello Music Group)
43. Flohio - No Panic No Pain (AlphaTone)
42. Polo G - The Goat (Columbia)
41. Aesop Rock - Spirit World Field Guide (Rhymesayers)
40. Tkay Maidza - Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 (4AD)
39. King Von - Welcome to O'Block (Only The Family/EMPIRE)
38. Tee Grizzley - The Smartest (300)
37. Young Dolph - Rich Slave (Paper Route/EMPIRE)
36. Bree Runway - 2000AND4EVA (Universal)
35. Amine - Limbo (Republic)
34. Junglepussy - Jp4 (Friends Of/Jagjaguwar)
33. Mozzy - Beyond Bulletproof / Occupational Hazard (EMPIRE)
32. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats - Unlocked (PH/Loma Vista)
31. Armani Caesar - The Liz (Griselda)
30. 42 Dugg - Young & Turnt 2 (4PF/CMG)
29. MIKE - Weight of the World (10k)
28. Roc Marciano - Mt. Marci (Marci Enterprises/Art That Kills)
27. City Girls - City On Lock (Quality Control)
26. R.A.P. Ferreira - Purple Moonlight Pages (Ruby Yacht)
Rico Nasty does it all on Nightmare Vacation, making good on the promise of her punk-rap breakthrough Nasty and also bringing in the warmer, smoother sounds of the Aminé-featuring "Back & Forth," the rubbery funk slap of "Own It," some of 100 gecs' hyperpop on "IPHONE" (produced by Dylan Brady of 100 gecs), and a handful of other tweaks to her sound. She's good at all of it, and she continues to be a commanding presence. You can't ever tune out Nightmare Vacation; it steals your attention no matter what you're doing, and it's filled with moments of greatness.
If you're gonna name an album after Jay-Z's classic Reasonable Doubt, you better deliver, and Syracuse rapper Stove God Cooks does exactly that on his debut LP with not a single guest feature on any track. It's out on Busta Rhymes' label (he first came up under Busta as Aaron Cooks back in 2016 before disappearing with no album), and Cooks frequently works with the Griselda crew and Roc Marciano, which -- along with the album title -- should give you an idea of the '90s-style rap he makes. After appearing on multiple tracks on 2019's Marcielago, he formed a strong working relationship with Roc which led to Roc producing this entire album. Roc is a master at reshaping vintage boom bap into something new, and Cooks knows what to do with it. He has a brash delivery and a loud, unique voice, separating Reasonable Drought from the more subdued records that frequently fill the Roc Marciano-adjacent world. He isn't really doing anything new, but he already stands tall next to rappers who have been doing this for 10 or 15 years, and this is just his first album.
Anime, Trauma and Divorce is like a therapy session set to hip hop and dance beats, and as you'd probably expect from a rapper with their own Comedy Central show, it's honest and sincere but it's not without humor and wit. Open Mike Eagle's music is probably too outré to ever infiltrate the mainstream, but it makes sense that he could land a show on cable television. He's charismatic and unique and has a magnetic personality that comes through in everything he does. It's what makes Anime, Trauma and Divorce one of his saddest and one of his most fun albums yet.
New York rapper Ka began his career in the '90s, and after a long hiatus, he began an underground resurgence in recent years, making music on his own terms and (deservingly) getting a lot of praise for it. His latest is Descendants of Cain, which is one of his most psychedelic records yet, and the smoky production is the perfect backdrop for Ka's rapping, which is quiet and plainspoken but still manages to punch you in the gut. As implied by the title, the album uses Biblical imagery, but it ties those themes to real-life experiences, like "when Pops shot at the neighbor's shop, put one in his head/He knew how he grew me, threw me the gun, a hundred, and fled." It's deep, heavy music that never stops revealing more of itself.
After a decade of waiting, it got to the point where it seemed like Jay Electronica might never release an album, but the unthinkable happened in March of 2020 just as the world was shutting down: Jay Electronica's debut album A Written Testimony arrived. It features at least one old song ("Shiny Suit Theory") but apparently the bulk of it was recorded shortly before its release. (Later in the year, Jay's shelved early 2010s album Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn) briefly hit streaming services too, though as of now it has been removed.) Starting from scratch was a good move. The album -- which features Jay-Z on almost every song -- kind of escapes the legend of Jay Electronica and just offers up great rap music from an artist who continues to be a pro at it. It was largely produced by Jay himself (with some contributions from The Alchemist, No I.D., Hit-Boy, Swizz Beatz, AraabMuzik, James Blake, and a borrowed Khruangbin instrumental), and his psychedelic production is as thrilling as his rapping. He also helps bring out the best in Jay-Z, who sounds great on this album and never steals the spotlight. It makes sense that Jay-Z's verses went uncredited; this album exists outside of the world of mainstream rap, and selling it as a "Jay Electronica and Jay-Z album" -- even if it is one -- would have taken away from what this album was going for, and succeeded at doing.
2020 was the year that we finally voted Donald Trump out of office, and as much as that's worth celebrating, it's only one step towards fixing the problems that plagued America long before Trump took office. "We were Black before the election and we will be Black after the election," legendary producer Salaam Remi said when releasing his new protest album shortly after Biden's victory was declared. The message on this album is clear: racism and police brutality are not new issues, and we need to fight them just as hard without Trump in the White House as we did when he was. The album features appearances by a ton of talented guests, including Black Thought, Common, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Chronixx, Stephen Marley, Bilal, CeeLo Green, Super Cat, Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Hamilton, Doug E. Fresh, Spragga Benz, Mumu Fresh, and others, and it provides a genre-defying backdrop of hip hop, reggae, R&B, soul, and more while delivering takedowns of racial injustice, calls for freedom, and celebrations of Black excellence. It's got powerful original songs, as well as creatively reworked covers of classic anti-racist/Black pride songs like "Strange Fruit" (sung by the late Betty Wright), James Brown's "Say It Loud," Syl Johnson's "Is It Because I'm Black," and Bob Marley's "Black Progress" (with Bob's son Stephen Marley on vocals). It's an album that's as celebratory as it is fired-up, and it features some of the most stunning music released this year.
J Hus' mix of UK rap, US rap, Afropop, and dancehall is so unique that nobody can agree on what to call it (Afroswing, Afrowave, and trapfrobeat have all been thrown around), but what everyone can agree on, is that it sounds really fucking good and keeps getting better. His sophomore album Big Conspiracy ropes in guests from all across J Hus' board -- Afropop singer Burna Boy, reggae/dancehall singer Koffee, UK R&B singer Ella Mai -- and they all fit perfectly into the world that J Hus and his producers (Jae5, IO, TSB) crafted. Like any great flavor medley, Big Conspiracy always tastes like more than one thing at any given moment, and the combinations are always thrilling. A song will sway like Afropop but have cold, hard rapping, or it'll pair a dancehall chorus to a trap beat. In all cases, J Hus comes out with gripping storytelling and hooks for days.
Rising Buffalo rapper Che Noir released three projects in 2020 including the 38 Spesh-produced Juno and the self-produced After 12 EP, but the best of them is As God Intended, which she made with the great, long-running Detroit producer Apollo Brown. Brown is a master at making '90s-style jazz/soul-infused boom bap in a way that sounds fresh today, and he supplied Che with some of his finest beats in recent memory on As God Intended. These are beats that deserve a rapper who can dish out complex rhyme schemes, in-the-pocket flows, and hard-hitting lyricism, and Che proves she can do that on a level that rivals the legends who paved the way. (Black Thought delivers one of his best verses of 2020 on this album, and he doesn't overshadow her.) Throughout the album, she tells her own coming-of-age stories, threatens her rivals, and criticizes the unjust prison system, and she does it all in a gripping manner that leaves you hanging on every word.
Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny started 2020 as a star, and he ended it as a superstar. He performed at the Super Bowl, he released not one but three new albums, and he became the first artist to ever have a Spanish-language album top the Billboard chart. That album was March's YHLQMDLG, which was followed in May by the quarantine-induced LAS QUE NO IBAN A SALIR, and then once more at the end of the year with a more proper album, El último tour del mundo. Across the two "more proper" albums, Bad Bunny explores hip hop, R&B, reggaeton, rock, pop, and much more, and no matter what genre he flirts with, he always sounds distinctly like Bad Bunny. He has an unmistakable voice that hits you the second he opens his mouth, and no matter how popular he gets, he pushes himself into new artistic territory. There's a reason that Bad Bunny became a record-breaking crossover star without watering down his sound or catering to English-speaking audiences. He's one of those once-in-a-lifetime artists who rose to fame because his songs were just that unique and that powerful, and by the looks of it, he won't be slowing down anytime soon.
Spillage Village is the Atlanta collective featuring EarthGang, J.I.D., 6LACK, Mereba, Jurdan Bryant, Hollywood JB and Benji, most of whom blew up in the time since Spill Vill's last project (2016's Bears Like This Too Much). Now that over half of them are popular major label artists, they returned for a new Spillage Village album, and it rivals just about anything they'd done previously, together or separately. It's easy to draw comparisons to fellow Atlanta collective the Dungeon Family (whose Big Rube appears on this album), as Spilligion blurs the lines between rap, R&B, soul, jazz, and gospel, favoring multi-layered vocal harmonies and lively instrumentation as much as it favors straight-up rap music. As made extra clear in the "End of Daze" video, Spilligion is music for an apocalyptic year like 2020 but it's not all anger and despair. The album has its dire moments but it also offers love and hope and spirituality in the face of chaos. It's protest music that insists there's a light at the end of the tunnel, even when that seems impossible.
UK rapper Headie One made his major label debut this year with the Drake and Future-featuring Edna, but his best 2020 album is the shorter indie-label release GANG that came a few months earlier. It was entirely produced by Brian Eno collaborator Fred Again, who provides a lush, innovative backdrop that would register as one of the year's best electronic albums even if Headie One didn't rap over it. (Brian Eno later remixed a song from the album too.) Instead of popular rappers, guest appearances on this one come from FKA twigs, Sampha, and Jamie xx, resulting in a fusion of drill and art pop that didn't really sound like anything else released this year. And as great as the production and all the guests are, credit where it's due to Headie One, who knew exactly what to do with Fred Again's beats and delivered some of the most immediate rapping (and singing) of his career thus far.
Mach-Hommy has spent the last few years proving himself as one of the most reliable makers of psychedelic, left-of-center rap, and he's built up such a cult following that he can sell his physical releases for hundreds if not thousands of dollars a piece and actually sell out of them. On Mach's Hard Lemonade (a digital TIDAL exclusive that goes for at least $100 physically), Mach stays true to his usual psychedelia but shapes it into one of his cleanest, most approachable albums yet. The production (by Mach himself, Preservation, Navy Blue, and others) is bold, rich, and mesmerizing, and the rapping (by Mach, Earl Sweatshirt, Your Old Droog, Tha God Fahim, and Navy Blue) perfectly complements it. Bulletproof rhymes weave in and out of jazzy instrumentals, and Mach's lyrics nail a balance between vivid surrealism and unflinching realism. It's out in space yet down to earth all at once.
As frontman of The Roots, Black Thought's been in the "best rappers alive" conversation for years, and with the solo career he's been focusing on since 2018, he makes an even stronger case. Unlike a lot of the '90s-era vets who are still going, Black Thought is doing some of his best rapping right now. As far as currently hot veteran rappers go, his competition is guys like Pusha T and Killer Mike, both of whom he invited to appear on "Good Morning" off the third volume of his Streams of Thought series. The song is like a three-way boxing match, and the winner is the audience, who get to hear three living legends at the top of their games on the same track. That's just one of many standout moments on Black Thought - Streams of Thought Vol 3, which is full of songs that toe the line between thrilling rhyme schemes, activist lyrics, and addictive hooks. It's an endlessly replayable album that finds Black Thought delivering powerful, career-best bars, and that's no small feat for an artist who's been doing it for three decades.
Lil Uzi Vert already exhibited pop dominance with his massive 2017 single "XO TOUR Llif3," but on this year's Eternal Atake, he proved he could make a grand statement with a full album too. It's one of three albums he released in 2020 (including one with Future), and it's not just his best but the best auto-tune pop-rap album of the year. Uzi went hard without losing the sing-songy appeal of his biggest hits, and he did it song after song after song.
Coventry-via-Gambia rapper Pa Salieu is a young artist who's full of determination, raw talent, and fresh ideas, and that's overwhelmingly clear on his debut project Send Them To Coventry. The album fuses together drill, grime, dancehall, afroswing, and more in a way that feels entirely natural, and even if you've heard other artists deliver similar concoctions, you probably haven't heard it done the way Pa does. Pa's an expert storyteller who uses these songs to talk about the violence he's witnessed and the trauma he's experienced in gripping detail, and he's got pop sensibilities too. As much as these songs are loaded with intricacies -- both musically and lyrically -- they also never fail to be catchy and accessible.
billy woods and Elucid remain two of the most prolific, consistently great artists in the world of underground abstract rap, both separately and also together as Armand Hammer. Shrines is the duo's latest album and one of their best. With contributions from Earl Sweatshirt, Moor Mother, R.A.P. Ferreira, Quelle Chris, KeiyaA, Pink Siifu, Fielded, Akai Solo, Curly Castro, Navy Blue, Kenny Segal, and others, Shrines is an ornate, spacious album that manages to sound abstract and direct at the same time. It favors hazy production and dizzying metaphors, but it makes as much of a point about the societal and political landscape as this year's more militant protest albums. It's an album that takes several listens to reveal itself, and it just gets more rewarding each time.
No matter what mood you're in, as soon as you hear "Flo Milli shit!", you know you're in for some of the most irresistible rap of 2020. The 20-year-old Alabama rapper broke on TikTok with her 2019 singles "Beef FloMix" and "In The Party," and she followed that up this year with her debut project Ho, why is you here?, featuring those two songs and ten others cut from the same energetic cloth. She's got the charisma, confidence, uniqueness, and catchiness that you usually don't hear until an artist's second or third project, and she's already beating some of her forebears at their own game.
One of the biggest tragedies in rap this year was the murder of Pop Smoke at just 20 years old. Any young life being taken is awful, but Pop Smoke's death shook the rap world especially hard because he was one of the genre's most promising new stars. He was putting the Brooklyn drill scene on the map, thanks to a unique, undeniable sound that combined the innovative production of UK drill with the kind of booming delivery that has dominated New York rap since the late '80s. Pop was distinctly New York without sounding like anyone who came before him, and he packed Meet The Woo 2 -- the last release of his lifetime -- with a barrage of songs that begged to be played again and again. As good as the album is, it sounds like an artist on the cusp of something even greater. (Another album, Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon, was completed and released after his death, but it's a little too overcrowded with guests and Pop didn't have the final say in it.) Still, Meet The Woo 2 would've been 2020's best rap albums even if Pop Smoke was still here. When he declared himself "the king of New York" on its single "Christopher Walking" in January, he already sounded believable.
2020 was Griselda's biggest year yet, and it was also a very big year for group member Conway, who released two very good EPs -- LULU (produced by The Alchemist) and No One Mourns the Wicked (produced by Big Ghost Ltd) -- and the even better full-length From King to a GOD. Instead of sticking to one producer like he did on the EPs, FKTG was made with a slew of producers (Alchemist, Hit-Boy, DJ Premier, Havoc, Beat Butcha, Daringer, Murda Beatz, etc) and it features an array of throwback rap sounds that blend together smoothly. Conway also brings a lot of different ideas to the table himself, from instant-classic street-rap anthems ("Lemon") to cyphers ("Juvenile Hell" with Flee Lord, Havoc & Lloyd Banks; "Spurs 3" with Benny the Butcher and Westside Gunn) to one of 2020's most powerful protest songs ("Front Lines") to one of 2020's most heartbreaking ruminations on grief ("Forever Droppin Tears," which pays tribute to the late Griselda producer DJ Shay). Conway's earlier releases proved he could rap, but FKTG proves he can craft an in-depth album that takes you on a journey with all kinds of thrilling, unexpected twists and turns.
Detroit rapper Boldy James released four albums in 2020. All of them were good, but The Price of Tea In China (produced entirely by The Alchemist) and Manger On McNichols (produced entirely by Sterling Toles) were exceptional, and in entirely different ways. The Price of Tea In China is Boldy's third project with The Alchemist, and those two have a chemistry that clicked more than ever on this album. The Alchemist had a landmark year, blessing Freddie Gibbs, members of Griselda (who Boldy is now signed to) and others with some of the finest smoky, jazzy production in his catalog, and The Price of Tea In China is no exception. It's hypnotizing from start to finish, and Boldy sounds calm but menacing as his voice casually cuts through the mix, making for a deadly counterpart to The Alchemist's beats. Guest verses come from Freddie Gibbs, Benny the Butcher, Vince Staples, and Evidence, all of whom sound carefully curated into the mix.
On the other hand, Manger On McNichols is a multi-layered, live-band jazz-rap album, as immersive as modern jazz-rap classics like To Pimp A Butterfly and Room 25. It's an album that was in the making for over a decade (and includes an appearance by DeJ Loaf, recorded before her career took off) that Sterling and Boldy kept going back to and kept tweaking. It was worth all that work; not only is it nothing like any of the other albums Boldy released this year, it's really not much like any other rap album released this year. The instrumentation is genuinely breathtaking, and Boldy supplied Manger On McNichols with some of his most remarkable verses.
While Benny the Butcher's Griselda groupmate Westside Gunn spent 2020 perfecting Griselda's unique take on '90s-style New York rap (more on him in a minute), Benny jumped ahead a few years with his own rap revival. His latest album Burden of Proof was entirely produced by Hit-Boy, who blesses Benny with the kind of rich, soulful production that you might've heard Jay-Z, Cam'ron or Jadakiss rap over in the early 2000s. The beats are less gritty than you're used to hearing Benny rap over, but he has not softened his blow one bit. He stuffs the album with hard-hitting come-up stories and knockout punchlines, and he's not only one of the most skilled MCs around but he's got the memorable songs to back it up. Burden of Proof has his catchiest hooks and biggest guest spots (Lil Wayne, Big Sean, Rick Ross, etc) yet, and if the added accessibility means this was the first Benny the Butcher album that a lot of people heard, that's not a bad thing at all. It's both a victory lap and a fine introduction.
Griselda were no oversight success. They had been grinding for years by the time they released their major label debut and first crew album (WWCD) in late 2019, and that album proved to be a breakthrough and helped turn 2020 into their biggest year yet by a longshot. They began the year with a highly-publicized Fallon appearance, all three core members (Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher) went on to release landmark solo albums, they recruited crucial new members, and they now regularly collaborate with some of the biggest rappers and producers around. The album that kickstarted their prolific 2020 output was Pray For Paris, the first of like a dozen Griselda-related releases in 2020, first of three Westside Gunn albums in 2020, and one of the best projects to ever come from the Griselda camp. Westside Gunn is a visionary, and he mapped out this album expertly. The crackling, psychedelic production (courtesy of The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Camoflauge Monk, Beat Butcha, Daringer, Jay Versace, and others) is hypnotic throughout, the guest verses are perfectly placed -- from usual suspects like Conway, Benny, Keisha Plum, Boldy James, Roc Marciano, and Freddie Gibbs to bigger names like Tyler, the Creator and Joey Bada$$ -- and both WSG and his guests filled the album with hooks and lyricism that keep you coming back for more. For years, the Griselda team has been tapping into a sound that hearkens back to '90s NYC rap but feels totally new and fresh, and Pray For Paris took that sound to the next level.
Run the Jewels feel like an institution at this point. Back in 2012, when El-P and Killer Mike -- two respected veterans who were nonetheless still more or less underground figures -- linked up for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, it seemed like a match made in heaven, and the creative synergy that fueled that masterpiece hasn't waned in the slightest. Each new RTJ joint reliably delivers raucous mayhem, tongue-in-cheek humor, righteous fury, and El-P's over-the-top, trunk-rattling cartoon-rap production that still doesn't sound remotely like anything else. RTJ4 dropped at a time when it felt like we really needed it, in the midst of the George Floyd protests that were gripping the nation, and as such it feels like a particularly potent entry in their catalog. The bangers that make up the opening of this album--"Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4)," "Ooh La La," "Out of Sight," and "Holy Calamafuck" already feel like classics, songs that seem tailor-made to score action movies and turn up parties for years to come. And the second half, as is their custom, is where things get real, with Killer Mike's verses on "Walking in the Snow" hitting with particular force as he cooly diagnoses and then brutally excoriates the fucked-up totality of American life that leads to a tragedy like the George Floyd murder. Like a lot of great protest art, Run the Jewels understand that anger and joy often go hand and hand, and RTJ4 delivers a cathartic truckload of both. [Rob Sperry-Fromm]
2019 was the year Megan Thee Stallion made her mark, and 2020 was the year she took the world by storm. She was involved in two of the year's biggest and best songs ("WAP" with Cardi B, and her own "Savage" remix featuring Beyonce), and when she suffered a shot to the foot (allegedly by Tory Lanez, who has been charged with the shooting), she turned the awful situation into a chance to speak out about protecting Black women, criticizing the Breonna Taylor case in the process. Her whole whirlwind year is reflected in Good News which opens with a diss track against her shooter, displays the New York Times op-ed she wrote about Black women on the cover art, and houses the "Savage" remix alongside three other hits and a handful of songs that should be hits (and still might be). Megan's story would've dominated this year no matter what Good News sounded like, but Megan released a collection of songs that back up how much of a celebrity she's become. Good News reminds you that Megan got to where she is by being a genuinely great rapper; it's her strongest, most cohesive statement yet.
Freddie Gibbs has one of the great voices in rap, an instrument whose gravelly punch can dance effortlessly over luxurious piano and strings as easily as it can thump with tangible venom over menacing bass drum hits. On Alfredo, The Alchemist provides him with a rich sonic tapestry over which to deploy his best-in-the-game dexterity and power. There's the groovy, shoulder-shaking rat-a-tat of "God Is Perfect," the driving, queasy bassline-as-gun-to-the-head boom-bap of "Frank Lucas," the laconic, loungey smoothness of "Something to Rap About." It's simultaneously a throwback to the East Coast rap of the '90s and something greater than mere nostalgia, the Alchemist's production combining with Freddie's distinct delivery to produce the ineffable thrill of the new. Freddie has always been great at adapting his style to different producers, and here the Alchemist feels like the perfect match for his old-school ethos and new-school power, resulting in that rare producer-rapper union where, when you're listening, you can't imagine one without the other. [R.S.F.]