For many, the events of 2020 presented a significant mental roadblock to tasks as mundane as retrieving and folding one’s clothes after a weekly (or monthly) trip to the washer. To say that keeping track of the music industry in the last year would be a severe understatement.
In the end, 2020 gave us some incredible releases from some of the biggest names in indie, but what about the world of hip-hop?
At the top, we saw widespread critical acclaim for releases by the late Mac Miller, Freddie Gibbs and Run the Jewels, plus triumphant chart successes from ascendant artists like Arizona Zervas, Roddy Rich, Doja Cat, DaBaby, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion. A big chunk of the chart-toppers, notably, were actually released back in 2019.
Far beneath the familiar names, however, was an incredibly diverse and innovative cohort of underground and alternative rappers that put out some of their strongest work to date – much of it flying far under the radar. The contents of these albums range from serene, jazzy soundscapes to scathing horror-core dystopias, proving that hip-hop remains a fertile growing ground for the classic, the avant-garde and everything in between.
For the benefit of you and your soundsystem going into the new year, here is a review of 2020’s brightest alt-hop releases:
R.A.P. Ferreira – “Purple Moonlight Pages”
The year was kicked off by the latest Milo project, R.A.P. Ferreira’s “Purple Moonlight Pages.” Playing his usual role as an avid philosophy reader and spelling bee champ who is all too excited to share his poetry with you, Ferreira is complimented here by the Jefferson Park boys lending the energy of a live band through their mellow percussion and horns. The album is a well-studied poet’s manifesto, demonstrating a steady maturation since his earliest days of rhyming his book list and referencing pro wrestling profusely.
Standout track: “Leaving Hell”
Quelle Chris & Chris Keys – “Innocent Country 2”
Presented like the soundtrack to an existential coming-of-age dramedy show, this second collaboration between two skillful musicians feels like a cosmic weighted blanket guiding the listener through the human psyche on a partly cloudy afternoon. Quelle Chris has already proven to be a slick sardonic voice for the millennial, through his other recent projects “Guns” and “Everything is Fine” (an inspiring collaboration with his wife, Jean Grae), but his verses on “Innocent Country 2” are a brighter highlight of his career. Packed with moments inspired by sunny piano balladry and overcast struggle rap alike, it’s a well-curated experience with primetime ambitions, minus the excessive ad breaks.
Standout track: “Sacred Safe” (feat. Merrill Garbus, Cavalier, & Homeboy Sandman)
Ka – “Descendants of Cain”
Carrying the Wu-Tang’s brand of witty and picturesque wordplay forward, New York’s Ka originally garnered a cult following as an enigmatic firefighter who moonlights as a thought-provoking emcee specializing in concept albums. Throughout the spacious “Descendants of Cain,” Ka maneuvers deftly through his dire upbringing. He uses biblical narratives to underscore themes of survival and sin, over a gorgeous collection of esoteric sample flips. The energy may be understated, but Ka’s lyricism is highly technical, and this is one of those entrancing hip-hop albums where atmosphere rules.
Standout track: “Solitude of Enoch”
The Koreatown Oddity – “Little Dominiques Nosebleed”
The Koreatown Oddity’s Dominique Purdy sets out to not only represent the West Coast, but his own enclave of Koreatown via the surreal “Little Dominiques Nosebleed.” In a regional hip-hop scene which is already diverse off of Madlib’s beat catalogue alone, The Koreatown Oddity seems determined to prove us naive, with his unique nasally flow taking twists and turns across technicolor streets depicted by dusty loops and loose drum flips. Along the way, he reconstructs his supernatural origin story, dispels misconceptions about his hometown and takes a break to explain the many ways of seeking attention in the information age.
Standout track: “Weed in LA”
Blu & Exile – “Miles”
Once upon a time, the kinship of rapper Blu and producer Exile lit up the underground with the release of “Below the Heavens” back in 2007. In their new, (appropriately-titled) love letter to the music of Miles Davis, the two reunite once more to deliver the strongest project either of them has released in recent memory.
The whole, movie-length affair is guided by Exile’s butter-smooth boom bap instrumentals and surgically-sharp use of vocal samples, while Blu proves that he is still a suave and clever wordsmith at the peak of his game. Despite the runtime, there’s never a tired moment in “Miles” thanks to its ensemble cast and creative production.
Standout track: “Music Is My Everything” (feat. Choosey & Jimetta Rose)
Armand Hammer – “Shrines”
ELUCID and billy woods are two emcees whose verbose styles and nihilistic demeanors are just as complimentary as the capitalization schemes to their aliases. This remains evident in the frantic, free-associative storytelling the two exchange as Armand Hammer on “Shrines.” they curate backdrops of decaying instrumentals that echo like the soundtrack to a doomsday cultist’s last words.
Few projects do more to distill the current state of the world in song form than the politically charged work of woods and ELUCID. They continuously work to remind you why everything is a dumpster fire before falling back to niche cultural references for some halfhearted comic relief.
Track highlight: “King Tubby”
MIKE – “weight of the world”
New York’s MIKE has carved out a respectable name for himself in the lineage of murky lo-fi hip-hop, that was made popular by Earl Sweatshirt following “Some Rap Songs.” His latest confirms his well-earned command over the style. Flowing skillfully over glitched loops hissing with tape noise and EQ’d to oblivion and back, MIKE’s presence on “weight of the world” conjures the energy of a listless summer afternoon while tackling subjects of family, substance abuse and relationships.
Track highlight: “allstar” (feat. Earl Sweatshirt)
Apollo Brown & Ché Noir – “As God Intended”
One of the East Coast scene’s newer voices, Ché Noir brings her Buffalo upbringing to life over the slick production from veteran Apollo Brown. Owing its heritage to the boom bap pedigree, Noir makes “As God Intended” feel like a worthy successor when she’s at her most personal. She pitches first-hand tales of hustle, deceit and self-reliance which feel too recent for comfort given the talented emcee is only 26. Coupled with Ché Noir’s experience as a Black woman and her religious upbringing, the album’s social commentary earns it a place among 2020’s hidden gems.
Track highlight: “The Apple” (feat. Planet Asia)
Boldy James & Sterling Toles – “Manager on McNichols”
In the middle of what was already a trailblazing year for New York’s gangster kingpins from Griselda Records, their Detroit recruit Boldy James’s “Manager on McNichols” completely broke free from its mold to deliver an exciting and experimental listen. The creative diversity of the beats, provided by Toles, turns the rapper’s words into a guided psychedelic meditation on Detroit’s troubled streets, shifting seamlessly between chamber jazz, piano ballads, frantic breakbeats, G-funk, and acoustic serenades.
The album is a surprisingly beautiful, genre-challenging effort front-to-back. It is equal parts Kendrick circa “untitled unmastered” and Freddie Gibbs at his most boastful. This is the kind of exceptional hip-hop that demands bumping in the aftermarket car stereo and at the philharmonic.
Track highlight: “Detroit River Rock”
clipping. – “Visions of Bodies Being Burned”
Few artists (with the exception of JPEGMAFIA) have done as much as clipping. to bring a legitimately hardcore ethic back to hip-hop while maintaining an accessible edge. With 2019’s “There Existed an Addiction to Blood,” the trio yet again proved their impressive versatility by combining harsh noise and power electronics with the existing horror-inspired subgenres of hip-hop. Only a year later, they returned to grace our Halloween season playlists yet again.
Pasted up and down with the macabre-if-clichéd trappings of classic pulp horror, “Visions of Bodies Being Burned” intensifies the eerie atmosphere, banger appeal and volume of its predecessor like only the knob-happy production team of Hutson and Snipes can. Meanwhile Daveed Diggs is still running lyrical victory laps after hitting the mainstream in “Hamilton,” and he appears likely to keep bewildering longtime clipping. followers and crossover fans alike if the group’s momentum holds.
Track highlight: “Something Underneath”
Open Mike Eagle – “Anime, Trauma, & Divorce”
Open Mike Eagle has never been afraid of cutting against the grain of hip-hop norms. His sing-song voice and outsider rhymes have kept him faithfully adjacent to the “art rap” subculture since the mid-2000s. It comes as no surprise, then, that the rapper chose to dissect his personal demons and the broader dumpster fire of 2020 through his love of anime and comics. The project is mostly a subdued and introspective affair, with the recently-divorced Mike grappling with self-reflection that bears warning to anyone who watched “Into the Spiderverse.” Those who realized that they relate more to a sweatpants-adorned Peter Parker than they did to Miles Morales will find a brutally-affirming therapy in “Anime, Trauma, & Divorce.”
Track highlight: “Wtf is Self Care”
Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin – “FlySiifu’s”
This unexpected collaboration between two fairly underground East Coast voices yields an unexpectedly groovy testament to the lo-fi sound’s staying power in “FlySiifu’s.” Presented like a jumbled collection of memories fuzzier than Hi-8 tape, the project’s varied instrumental backdrops are commanded by the two emcees effortlessly adapting to each beat’s unique mood and keeping the pace mellow throughout.
Track highlight: “Clean” (feat. Liv.e)
Navy Blue – “Songs of Sage: Post-Panic!”
Another graduate of the Sweatshirt-adjacent circle, Navy Blue returns for his second album of 2020 sounding like he’s hit his stride in a career trajectory that’s mainly consisted of scattered features up until now. On “Songs of Sage,” Blue flows eloquently over a collection of gorgeous lo-fi-tinged beats that feels like something of a coming of age for the subgenre.
With his two releases bookending 2020, Navy’s latest feels like either a relaxing sunset after an exhausting day or the calm before an even larger storm. For those who feel they can relate to the unsure footing, “Songs” may be your solace.
Trach highlight: “Sea Bass”
Moor Mother & billy woods – “Brass”
Hip-hop’s most morose, cynical, and apocalyptic lyricist teams up with a rising poet in Afrofuturist tradition and the result is “Brass” –– undoubtedly one of 2020’s greatest albums. Though neither of the musicians in center stage have been shy of experimentation in the past, this album sees each bringing out an even more ferocious energy in the other which adds an impressive milestone to their discogs.
With its indescribable production assembled from decrepit samples and field recordings to lyrical content ranging from unsettling to downright depressing, “Brass” packs crippling social commentary into what feels like the most potent response to the year 2020 that hip-hop had to offer.
Track highlight: “Scary Hours” (feat. John Forté)
Associated Spotify playlist: