So yeah. 2020.
This year has been something, huh?
“Unpredictable” is probably the best way to describe the chaotic past few months and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. World events have touched every facet of our lives, including the music industry. Live concerts have been postponed indefinitely. Scores of album releases have been pushed back. And the toilet paper, my god the toilet paper.
In fact, you can mark pretty much anything released this year with an asterisk – it’s hard to measure music by traditional means in these nontraditional times. These are strange days.
I almost decided to skip our annual midyear review of hip-hop and R&B’s top releases due to the scarcity of new material. However, I quickly realized it wouldn’t be fair to ignored the artists who delivered strong albums, EPs and mixtapes to get us through. They deserve shine, so that’s what we’ll give them here.
While we await the locusts or alien invasion or whatever else is in store in this insane year, let’s revisit, in no specific order, 25 of 2020’s standouts thus far.
(*and before y’all go ballistics in the comments, as of the publishing of this post, no, I had not yet reviewed the Chloe X Halle album everyone is raving about at the moment. Maybe it’ll make the year end list if it’s as good as Twitter says.*)
Jhene Aiko, Chilombo
K. Michelle, All Monsters Are Human
Kehlani, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Kehlani has been one of the scant few R&B acts to get a little mainstream attention in recent years. Despite that success, while I don’t remember actively disliking any of her earlier work, nothing really stood out and connected with me. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is the first album to make me take notice. While the themes center on the usual love gained n’ love lost motif, there’s an undercurrent of wisdom that her previous works lacked. Forgoing some of her previous poppy elements also helps give this project some needed weight. Not bad for an artist who is still looking to solidify her sound.
Eminem, Music to be Murdered By
It’s fair to say that Marshall Mathers has been stuck in midlife crisis mode for a minute now – the aging veteran who still has gas in the tank but spends maybe a LITTLE too much time trying to prove himself to young audiences that are way out of his demo. Of all his comeback attempts, Music to Be Murdered By, Em’s 11 studio LP, comes closest to his former glory. A hearty mix of tongue-twisting bars, elite storytelling and solid production keeps this one afloat. Yes, the hefty tracklist overstays its welcome (a reoccurring flaw in the streaming era, sadly) but it’s proof that Em’s at his best when he focuses on his craft, not winning over fickle fans.
Anna Moore, The Light
A few months ago, while I was playing this EP in my office, my wife popped her head through the door to ask who I was listening to and where she could get her hands on more. It was the first time in a LONG time that an artist stopped my wife dead in her tracks. Anna Moore’s airy, Aaliyah-esque vocals have converted another fan. The Light is the latest in her series of breezy EPs, brimming with both promise and nostalgia. As always, the brief runtime is enough to make you beg for more but there’s enough substance to hold us over until the inevitable LP lands. Clearly, my wife is patiently waiting.
Jojo, Good to Know
Good to Know is a milestone for Jojo. Finally leaving her well-documented label woes in the past, her fourth LP serves as a new beginning – it’s her first project after launching her own label imprint. And with creative control finally in her hands, Jojo delivers the mature project she, and her fans, deserve. Evolving both vocally and as an artist, Good to Know boasts both impressive harmonies and well-structured songwriting. I can confidently say right now that several of the best R&B tracks of the year make their home on this LP. The theme of independence runs deep here – I’m glad Jojo has finally found herself.
Styles P, Styles David: Ghost Your Enthusiasm
It feels like every year, without fail, I feature a Styles P project among the year’s best. He’s quietly become the hardest working man in hip-hop, guaranteed to drop an impressive project annually, even if it flies under mainstream radar. That’s cool, P clearly has no desire to participate in popularity contests, which is why the authenticity of Styles David: Ghost Your Enthusiasm helps it excel. As always, familiar faces pop up throughout (Jadakiss and Sheek Louch, among others) with Styles maintaining his role as unflinching elder statesmen. Lyrically, the Ghost is as menacing as ever, but his greatest trait is the ability to morph from gangster to gentleman, which he does here effortlessly with his introspective bars. There’s no such thing as a bad Styles P album – he’s still undefeated.
Syleena Johnson, Woman
If y’all didn’t know, Syleena Johnson is R&B’s Wonder Woman. Not only does she co-host a syndicated talk show, she also recently dropped 50 pounds and slayed a fitness competition with her new She-Ra physique. And oh yeah, she’s still dropping the high-quality R&B that made her a star. Her eighth studio LP Woman, true to its name, is a tribute to womanhood, serving as motivation to her sisters and, if you wanna be real, wisdom to the brothers as well. Syleena’s strength has always been her passionate vocals, and they really resound with authority here. Whether serving as encouragement for women, or delivering straight talk for men, Syleena’s message never wavers. She’s power personified.
DVSN, A Muse in Her Feelings
Until now, the duo of Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 stayed pretty close to their lane, delivering that “vibey” OVO Sound (pun intended) that made their labelmates famous. But on their third release, the duo known as DVSN spread their wings a bit, branching out into records that run the gamut from the club to the Caribbean. The experimentation doesn’t ALWAYS work, but when it does, it hits. And most importantly, the duo never stray far from their core sound. The second half of the album specifically gains incredible momentum as they build upon the foundation they’ve laid for years now. DVSN often gets left out of modern R&B conversation and that’s a shame – their potential is limitless.
G.I. Magus, Verses the World
The themes of this year’s best music seems to center around, growth, maturity and unity. The latest from Birmingham’s own GI Magus is no exception. Versus the World is an extremely introspective release from the heart of a brother looking to balance his craft and family duties. Strong guest appearances and solid production lay the foundation for one of the most honest and reflective releases of 2020. It’s yet another example that maturity ain’t such a bad thing.
PJ Morton, The Piano Album
What do you do after winning your first Grammy? If you’re PJ Morton you drop another great album on us. The Piano Album was recorded days before his big win, an intimate acoustic release that’s little more than a man and his piano revisiting his past hits. There’s a beauty in its simplicity, with PJ having a blast performing his favorite tracks and being joined by his high-profile friends. In days where live performances are understandably few and far between, The Piano Album is a refreshing experience, one that showcases the boundless talent of one of R&B’s new stalwarts.
Kevin Ross, Audacity, Vol. 1
With the success of his 2017 debut behind him, it’s only right for Kevin Ross to continue the momentum. While Audacity Vol. 1 in many ways feels like an appetizer, the EP boasts enough goodness to satisfy hungry listeners. As always, Kevin leads with emotion and sensuality instead of the blatant sexuality (and crassness) boasted by his many of his male peers. It gives his music a fresh maturity that makes it accessible to all listeners. Pristine vocals and a strong mix of upbeat tracks and midtempo standouts make Audacity Vol. 1 a hidden gem.
Luke James, To Feel Love/d
Luke James’ musical career, despite incredible talent, has always felt like missed opportunity. His Whispers in the Dark mixtape is easily one of the best of its era and seemed to set the stage for a breakthrough. But his 2014 debut LP failed to catch fire (even though it was pretty solid in its own right) and Luke instead retreated to Hollywood, where he found the success that seemed certain in the booth. To Feel Love/d seems like a chance to right those wrongs and, once again, his incredible talent is undeniable. It’s an strong showcase of both emotion and musical stylings, proving that Luke isn’t willing to be confined to one sound. Once again, it seems like this one has slipped through the cracks but it’s definitely worth your time – talent like his can’t be overlooked for long.
Kxng Crooked & Joell Ortiz, H.A.R.D.
The House of Slaughter gets a brief reunion on this bicoastal EP, and they’re back like they never left. H.A.R.D., AKA, the Housing District Rap Authority, serves as boom-bap heaven for fans of bully bars. If you know Joey and Crooked, you know just what to expect here – vicious wordplay, head-nodding production and a little bit of introspection mixed in. The veteran duo rarely disappoint, and proves to be another h.a.r.d.-hitting outing.
Ro James, Mantic
I gotta admit, I was a little worried about the state of Mantic in the days leading up to its release. Ro James spent several months laying the groundwork with several singles – none of which were necessarily bad, but certainly seemed well below the high bar set by his previous work. I was wrong to worry – while those singles might not have stood out individually, as a package, they work marvelously well together. Ro’s moody, off-kilter production and Prince-ly influences blend miraculously. Simply put, it’s alt-R&B done right. Great sequencing and cohesive themes prove that Mantic is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s encouraging to see that the art of album making still lives on.
Conway the Machine & Alchemist, LULU
I swear the Griselda boys never stop grinding, it feels like they drop a new project every other week or so. But with quality this good I’m here for it. Conway’s collabo with Alchemist is as solid as you’d expect – his rugged bars blend perfectly with Al’s soundscapes. The brief runtime proves not to be a detriment; the party wraps up before it wears out its welcome. Griselda is known for its no-frills rap, and this is another cog in their unstoppable machine.
Kiana Lede, KIKI
Don’t worry if you don’t recognize the name, you will soon. Kiana has been honing her musical craft for the better part of a decade, but her debut LP KIKI might be the release that serves as her breakout. Great sampling and strong relationship themes abound, pushing her to be a voice of her generation, similar to the strides Ari Lennox made just last year. Like most current R&B releases, many tracks suffer from the dreaded Short Song Syndrome – but unlike the worst offenders, these records don’t sound unfinished and sloppy. They’re concise and work to the album’s benefit. KIKI smartly appeals to younger R&B audiences and older heads alike. She’s on her way up.
Shawn Stockman, Foreward
Back in 1995, when Boyz II Men standout Shawn Stockman turned heads with “Visions of a Sunset” on the Mr. Holland’s Opus soundtrack, we all figured a solo project was on the way. Twenty-five years and a global pandemic later, we finally got that solo album out of Shawn. Better late than never, I guess. And this one was definitely worth the wait. While Shawn’s vocals bring a warm familiarity to our ears, Foreword isn’t just a nostalgia trip. Stockman uses his veteran instincts to craft an easygoing, no-frills release that both pays homage to his legacy while moving it, well, forward. This is R&B comfort food for the soul.
This probably isn’t the Jada album you were expecting. Ignatius is dedicated to Ruff Ryders Entertainment A&R and record producer Ignatius “Icepick Jay” Jackson, who died in 2017. To that end, Ignatius is a passion project that features the themes that expound on Kiss and Icepick Jay’s friendship. The street talk and gunplay take a back seat to upbeat production, family ties and reflection, and that’s a good thing. Those strong themes and honest reflection give Ignatius the depth that some of Jada’s more beloved releases lack. But don’t worry, Al Qaida Jada definitely makes his presence known from time to time, with the raspy threats that made his name so renowned. Ignatius is all about growth and, hey, maturity looks pretty good on Kiss.
CJ Fly, Rudebwoy
This one snuck up on me. The Pro Era member first made his name by hopping on Joey BadA$$’s beloved 1999 mixtape with a couple of standout features. After a round of mixtapes of his own, he finally comes into his own with his debut Rudebwoy. The blend of Jamaican and NY influences give this an instantly fresh feel in a genre weighed down by monotonous trap. Tack on some thought-proving introspection and strong guest stars and you have the perfect ingredients for a standout debut. Hip-hop heads, don’t let this one pass you by.
Thundercat, It Is What It Is
The way things are looking, the best song of 2020 just might be a goofy tune about a guy covered in cat hair harassing women while wearing his Dragon Ball Z durag. I’m perfectly fine with that. Superproducer Thundercat has always drunkenly wobbled to the beat of his own drum, but don’t be distracted by his weirdness – there’s a definite method to his madness. It Is What It Is feels like a jazzy journey on a UFO, but its oddness is what’s so endearing. The album’s tracks weave perfectly into each other, so much so that the album feels like one long song. But when that song is this good, no one’s complaining. Of course, Thundercat is an acquired taste – his overtly jazzy themes and nerdy references don’t always hit home – but in times like these, who doesn’t wanna hop on a spaceship and lose themselves?
Chika, Industry Games
Chika is the very definition of unconventional. And we like it that way. The Mongomery, Ala., native’s breakout EP is ripe with infectious energy and surprisingly deep subject matter. We’ve long debunked the myth that female MCs only focus on cash n’ twerking – Chika continues to raise the bar high with high concepts that run the gamut of Southern politics to imposter syndrome. And best of all, the record is FUN, fueled by insanely catchy production, R&B-laced beats and even sprinkles of gospel. Sooner or later, Chika’s gonna be big. Might as well jump on the bandwagon now.
Royce da 5’9, The Allegory
This album has become downright prophetic in recent months. When we last left Royce in 2018, he dropped off Book of Ryan, a poignant look at family life. That narrative has expanded with The Allegory – taking those familial lessons into the black community to achieve, well, independence. Those themes, as well as Royce’s masterful workplay, make The Allegory a standout on his already loaded resume. It’s a weighty listen, crammed with concepts of family, identity and success that will take more than a cursory listen to digest. But for those willing to invest the time, The Allegory is a journey well worth experiencing.
Westside Gunn, Pray for Paris
I don’t know WHY Westside Gunn’s music works so well. The off-kilter delivery, the incessant ad-libbing (“DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOOOOOOT”) the bizarre metaphors (dude has a wrestling reference for every occasion) – it’s a recipe for disaster. But time and again, the most charismatic member of the Griselda gang delivers, and Pray for Paris is probably his most cohesive album to date. The production ranges from pavement-cracking boom-bap to breezy soul, making every track a new adventure. And no matter the guests – be it his fellow Griselda teammates or new faces like Wale or Tyler, the Creator – no one ever steals the spotlight from Gunn. While you almost always know what to expect from a Conway or Benny the Butcher track, you NEVER know what Westside Gunn will cook up next, and that’s why you can’t take your eyes off him.
Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony
Of all the chaos we’ve seen in 2020 – the death of cultural icons, global pandemic, social outrage – the LAST thing I would have expected is Jay Electronica to FINALLY deliver his looooooong awaited debut album. 2020 is wild, I’m telling y’all. Even better, the album does a solid job living up to its atmospheric expectations, thanks to a big assist from Jay Z. Jigga is the guiding force on this monumental project, adding context and structure around Jay Elec’s often-abstract soliloquies. But Elec more than holds his own, showcasing the effortless wordplay that made hip-hop stand up and take notice nearly a decade ago. Some critics have knocked the project due to Jay Z’s heavy-handed assistance, but honestly, I don’t see it as a bad thing. The pair have exceptional chemistry – there’s not a weak song to be found and both do their share to carry the load. A Written Testimony is about the journey not the destination, and with one of rap’s GOATs as his guiding light, has Jay Electronica finally delivered.
Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist, Alfredo
I guess it’s time to ask the looming question: Is it time consider Freddie Gibbs one of the greatest rappers ever? Before you roll your eyes, numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard – Freddie teamed with Madlib to deliver the best album of 2019, and in 2020 returns with Alchemist with another album of the year contender. And that’s not even counting the scores of incredible mixtapes and LPs that landed prior to this hot streak. Alfredo is as rich and satisfying as its namesake. Gangsta Gibbs’ delivery is downright effortless; he scorches every single track Alchemist lays down. Guests like Rick Ross and Conway the Machine stop by and immediately raise their games – there’s no slacking when Gibbs is this fired up. Even when the momentum slightly slows near the end of the set, Gibbs’ never-ending confidence refuses to show weakness. Freddie believes he’s the best in the world, and with this run he’s on, it’s hard to argue with him.
Run the Jewels, RTJ4
They say music reflects the times, and there’s no album more reflective of the social chaos of 2020 than Run the Jewels’ fourth opus. As images of protestors fill our screens, as Confederate monuments tumble and Black voices scream for liberation, Killer Mike and El-P’s anarchic rebel rap is the soundtrack to our times. This isn’t just a case of recency bias, however – even if this album dropped in less tumultuous times, it would still reign among the best of their catalog. The hyperactive production and passionate lyrics are timeless, resonating with messages that resound with one refrain – destroy and rebuild. El-P especially sounds energized, delivering some of the most empowered bars of his career. When people ask me what makes a classic album, I repeat two key elements – incredible music that defines an era. Time will tell but RTJ4 just might fit that bill.
Which albums are getting you through this insane year? Which deserving albums did I miss? Share them below.