There’s quite a bit of hip-hop cooking in the kitchen for 2020, in terms of scheduled and rumored releases. Full-length projects are expected from the holy trinity of contemporary rap greats—Drake, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar—as well as albums that will excite the kids (Lil Uzi Vert, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie) and us old fogies (the long-gestating Black Star reunion album).
And while those are albums we know are coming, what’s a new year in music without some predictions? For instance, I expect Big Sean to make a grand comeback for album five after a protracted break from the limelight, and for Cardi B to drop her hotly anticipated (and scrutinized) sophomore album. I wouldn’t be surprised to see God’s favorite canary, Tekashi 6ix9ine, manage to lay down a track or two from inside the pen.
Hopefully, when we reflect on it all a year from now, 2020’s hip-hop won’t elicit as much of a “meh” as it did in 2019.
Last year, the genre reigned supreme from a commercial perspective, especially if you’re counting Lil Nas X, Lizzo and Post Malone as rappers. The dedicated band of “Lils” and rappers with “Baby” somewhere in their stage name had a strong year; if you’re a rap fan who has yet to graduate high school, you probably didn’t leave the year disappointed.
But for artists usually celebrated in this space, it was either a quiet year or a disappointing one, with several anticipated projects that failed to shock and awe. Among them is Kanye West’s ninth album, Jesus is King, which many people held a Stockholm Syndrome-esque anticipation for despite West’s best music-making years being clearly behind him. Indeed, that album is probably tied with his 2018 project ye at the dead-ass bottom of his oeuvre.
Revenge of the Dreamers III, the highly publicized project from J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint, has a handful of decent cuts that are eclipsed by the album’s by-design compendium of untested artists and producers who churned out a lot of forgettable tracks. Little Brother reunited for a not-bad new album, but their subsequent tour in which they took us aging fans back to the era of George W. Bush reminded me that the truncated group’s glory days are long behind them.
For a couple weeks, I was very excited that DJ Premier managed to liberate Guru’s vocals to put together a surprise Gang Starr album, One of the Best Yet. But the album had zero staying power and simply motivated me to blast their 1998 classic Moment of Truth. Even Nas broke my heart with a lackluster Lost Tapes 2, leading that project with the most befuddling lead single ever. For my dough, the only hip-hop album that truly lived up to the hype in 2019 is Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Bandana.
Last year’s top tracks include perennial entrants Skyzoo and Rapsody, and a couple acts for whom I would’ve been shocked if you told me in January they’d make my year-end list. (2 Chainz, YBN Cordae). It also includes quite a few older artists whom Generation Z rap fans have likely never even heard of. I’m sure turning up to new Cam’ron music in 2019 probably isn’t a common thing, but let’s face it: You don’t come here expecting love for the Lils.
1. “Cleo,” Rapsody
Rapsody is a dyed-in-the-wool emcee, and I delight in watching her improve with every album. Eve, her third album, is a paean to sistas: every track is named after black woman, from historical figures to fictional ones; “Cleo” is a shout out to Queen Latifah’s character in Set it Off. As hip hop has proven time and again, it’s tough to go wrong with a sample of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight..”
2. “Pity in the Summer,” Jim Jones (feat Cam’ron, Fred the Godson, Marc Scibilia and Rain910)
Jamaica-based production duo Heatmakerz is responsible for a good amount of that early-aughts Dipset sound that many of us adore. They serve as the main producer for Jim Jones’ surprisingly solid new seventh album El Capo (not to be confused with 2011’s Capo. So much for originality). Jim and Cam together on a track is almost always a reliable bet.
3. “Threat 2 Society,” 2 Chainz
The erstwhile Tity Boi’s Rap or Go to the League is loaded with the top 40 darlings (Ariana Grande, Young Thug, Kendrick Lamar) that his pedigree in the industry affords him. But the album’s best cut is attributable to the best 9th Wonder beat that I’ve heard in a while. It’s a not-insignificant talent to be able to dig from the mainstream and the underground for one project.
4. “Palmolive,” Freddie Gibbs and Madlib (feat. Pusha T and Killer Mike)
MadGibbs’ sophomore album is probably the year’s best pound-for-pound hip-hop album. “Palmolive,” which features Madlib’s inimitable gift for the soul sample as well as Push continuing the career renaissance he had in 2018. Sure, Gibbs is sometimes hard to understand after one listen—the good thing is you’ll want to keep listening.
5. “Glorious,” Skyzoo and Pete Rock
When the Retropolitan album was announced at the top of the year, there was no single project I anticipated more, and the final product could never have been as flawless as I pictured it in my head. Retropolitan is still a very good album, and for this album opener, Pete samples one of my favorite Curtis Mayfield records as Sky goes no-hook for nearly three minutes.
6. “Fast Lane,” Cam’ron
The original Purple Haze was a guilty pleasure when it dropped 15 years ago; it’s no longer so guilty when I put it up against much of what has come out in the last half-decade or so. The newest cut on the list (and the second produced by the Heatmakerz), “Fast Lane” and its African world music sample is a throwback to the halcyon Dipset days and a veritable head nodder.
7. “They Wanna Kill You,” Dave East (feat. DJ Premier)
As I mentioned, the surprise Gang Starr album was generally disappointing; I would’ve enjoyed hearing more beats like “They Wanna Kill You” on it. Oddly enough, it’s a Swizz Beats production featuring Premier on the scratches. Survival is Dave East’s “official” debut album, but dude has been putting in work for years, so if you’re an East neophyte, definitely dig deeper—you’ll find a mess of good hip-hop.
8. “Thanksgiving,” YBN Cordae
Before his debut album The Lost Boy, I dismissed YBN Cordae as a member of the “Lil’” cadre for no other reason than his age (22). That was a bad look on my part: dude’s lyrics and wordplay belie his young age, and his album has the fingerprints of respected vets like Pusha T and J. Cole. “Thanksgiving” explores the decidedly mature topic of bringing a boo home for the holidays.
9. “Lost Freestyle,” Nas
Not a “new” song since it’s technically a “lost tape,” it’s the first time we’re hearing this Statik Selektah-produced gem, so it makes the list. Far and away the best track on an otherwise disappointing project. Hearing Nas flex over a dope beat reminds everyone what his career would’ve looked like if he had a better ear for production.
10. “Day 1s,” Fat Joe & Dre (feat Big Bank DTE)
Cool & Dre has spent the entire millennium producing cuts for at least one rapper you love, working most consistently with Fat Joe. Joe and Andre “Dre” Christopher Lyon dropped the outta-nowhere Family Ties in December, which has solid production and always-capable Joe verses (like most producers, Dre is better off on the boards than in the booth). “Day 1s” rides and makes me wish it were warmer out so I could listen in the whip with the windows down and the wind against my face.