With each new month, 2020 brings the world a list full of new surprises, and most of them haven’t been positive. Luckily, we made it to September. But even amidst all of the chaos that persists in the world, nationwide protests, a global pandemic, an upcoming presidential election and no sign of live concerts happening any time soon, there has been no shortage of great albums this year.
DX is narrowing down the endless amount of music released during the course of the year to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects. The team at DX highlights some of their favorite albums this year so far. This month’s list includes new work from Action Bronson, an album from Atlanta’s Spillage Village collective and albums from Griselda’s finest. This list is your guide to the best bars of the year.
To see which albums qualify for this list’s contention, scroll to the bottom.
The Top Rap Albums of 2020 (January – September)
Contributing writers: Trent Clark, Kyle Eustice, Justin Ivey, Josh Svetz, Dana Scott, Brandon Caldwell, David Brake, Kenan Draughorne, Devon Jefferson & Jeremy Hecht.
Seven Times Down Eight Times Up – Elzhi
Elzhi reminded Hip Hop fans why he’s one of the most skilled lyricists to ever grace a microphone on his new album Seven Times Down Eight Times Up. Over the production of JR Swiftz, the former Slum Village MC showcased his intricate wordplay and spellbinding storytelling on his first solo album since 2016. The LP is not only one of the best Hip Hop releases of 2020 but also Elzhi’s finest work since The Preface.
The Liz – Armani Caesar
Spilligion – Spillage Village
Spillage Village, the supergroup from Atlanta which consists of JID, EarthGang, Hollywood JB, Jurdan Bryant, Mereba, 6lack and Benji, came together last month to release Spilligion, the dream team’s first release since 2016’s cult-classic Bears Like This Too Much. The Atlanta rappers trade bars atop funk, R&B, and soul-inspired instrumentals. Spilligion reminds us that underground Atlanta rap won’t be underground for much longer.
From King To A God – Conway The Machine
The Griselda wave continues with From King To A God, the latest from Buffalo rapper Conway The Machine. A teaser for his Shady Records debut God Don’t Make Mistakes, FKTAG puts Conway in his prime alongside features from Griselda members Westside Gunn, Benny The Butcher and Armani Caesar as well as legends in New York rap such as Lloyd Banks and Method Man. Alongside beefing up his bars, Conway is pushing himself outside of his comfort zone on FKTAG with an array of beats from Erick Sermon, Havoc and DJ Premier.
Only For Dolphins – Action Bronson
In recent months Action Bronson has been putting a lot of work into improving himself. He’s hitting the gym, living healthier and he just released Only For Dolphins, his most cohesive and impressive project since Blue Chips 7000. Bronson draws from various sounds and motifs which he’s employed throughout his career. Alongside the exotic-sounding beats Bronson commissioned from longtime associates such as Harry Fraud, Daringer and The Alchemist, there’s satirical adlibs referencing a signature cologne, reminiscent of his early Blue Chips albums. Bam Bam might be slimming down that iconic belly, but he’s still hungry.
King’s Disease – Nas
Master P rhetorically asked in BET’s No Limit Chronicles documentary that aired in July, “the music business changes every three to five years. Are you ready for it?” Nas proves he’s been a well-armored godbody for over 25 years on his 10th studio album King’s Disease. Through most of 13-track playlist, Nas gracefully wades the waters with Hit-Boy, bringing lessons and elite artists from the past and present while pivoting towards rap’s future.
Limbo – Aminé
Aminé brings a little of everything and a lot of emotion on Limbo. His clever wordplay and sincere vocal tone bring you closer to the speaker with each listen, unpacking another layer or detail. Not to mention, featured artists such as Young Thug, Gap Band legend Charlie Wilson and Summer Walker bring their A-game, making for a stellar album all the way through.
The OutRunners – Curren$y & Harry Fraud
Mixtape king Curren$y seemingly raps through a room of smoke in a lackadaisical fashion. He makes rapping look too easy. With Harry Fraud on the production, The OutRunners is cohesive and polished without sacrificing the underground sound that makes Curren$y so captivating. Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, Jim Jones and Conway the Machine all deliver rock-solid features. Highlights of the album include “Riviera Beach” and “Cutlass Cathedrals.”
As God Intended – Apollo Brown & Che Noir
In an industry full of twerk anthems and often hallow raps, Buffalo-bred MC Che Noir is a breath of fresh air. As God Intended boasts features from Black Thought, Planet Asia and Skyzoo, proving she can spit with the best of them — but she certainly doesn’t need anyone to do the heavy lifting. The track “12 Hours” brilliantly puts her storytelling prowess on display and cements her reputation as a formidable rap force.
Miles – Blu & Exile
Blu and Exile’s undeniable chemistry is once again evident on their latest album Miles. Serving as the longtime duo’s third studio album and first since 2012’s Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, the delightful 11-track project firmly adheres to their underground rap ethos as Blu’s refined rhyming style takes centerstage. Album highlights include “Miles Davis,” “True & Livin'” and “Requiem For Blue” featuring Fashawn.
RTJ4 – Run The Jewels
There couldn’t have been a more appropriate time for Killer Mike and El-P to emerge from their short hiatus and gift the world with new music. A crumbling economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing high unemployment rate and the civil unrest over police brutality have made an album that rails against the powers that be a necessity. With Run The Jewels 4, the ATLien and New York felon do not disappoint, raging against societal inequalities, judicial injustices and calling out American traditionalism like the slave masters posted on our dollars. An early album of the year candidate, RTJ’s 4th installment asserts their dominance as being one of the go-to groups to throw on when fed up with the system and imbalance of America’s government practices; because every revolution needs a soundtrack.
The GOAT – Polo G
Nobody likes a sophomore slump, including Polo G. The young Chicago spitter built on his existing strengths and drew a line in the sand with his hardbody second studio album, THE GOAT. Whether it’s floating through Windy City streets on “33,” solidifying his love life on “Martin & Gina” or working through the pain on “No Matter What,” Polo G always raps with conviction and passion. The album is also backed by star-studded production from Mustard, Mike Will Made-It, Murda Beatz, Nick Mira and that’s just the m’s.
Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs
There may not be a better rapper going than Freddie Gibbs. Alfredo, his fourth project in the last two years trades Madlib production for that of Alchemist and Gibbs continues to be lightyears ahead of his contemporaries. “Michael Jordan, 1985, bitch I’m travelin’ with a cocaine circus,” he raps along spaghetti western guitar strings on “1985.” The 10-track quick-strike from Gibbs has already slotted itself into Album of the Year contention as the ESGN leader flaunts in and out of pockets with Rick Ross (“Scottie Beam”), Benny The Butcher (“Frank Lucas”), Tyler, the Creator (“Something To Rap About”) and Conway (“Babies & Fools”) and excels at every turn. If you’re a guest on a Gibbs project, it immediately becomes an event. We thought Gibbs had reached a max level of no skip with Bandana. He’s taken that to another level on Alfredo.
Pray For Paris – Westside Gunn
Much of the Westside Gunn story has already been written in stone. He’s established a dedicated following as the founder of Griselda Records and introduced the world to multiple talents such as Conway The Machine and Benny The Butcher. Yet WSG took his biggest step toward a wider audience with Pray For Paris, releasing the most accessible album of his career — even more than the Griselda crew’s Shady Records debut WWCD. While he certainly hasn’t abandoned what’s worked so far, Pray For Paris expands WSG’s scope by getting contributions from the likes of Tyler, The Creator and Wale. The LP is the ideal entry point for listeners who haven’t jumped on the Griselda bandwagon but doesn’t compromise the foundation of what WSG has built.That makes it a great listen for newcomers and dedicated listeners alike, which is exactly what Westside needs to expand his influence in music industry.
A Written Testimony – Jay Electronica
Over a decade ago, Jay Electronica not only amazed fans with his lyrical ability but also through his mysterious nature. The mystique only grew over time as his debut album seemed like it would never drop. But after years of uncertainty, Jay Elec proved his doubters wrong by dropping his debut album A Written Testimony. The “Exhibit C” creator called on JAY-Z for help though, taking on the role of co-star for Jay Elec’s first LP. While many thought Hov outshined his Roc Nation signee on the project, there is no denying Jay Elec’s elite lyricism. Hopefully, this project will lead to a proper solo LP to prove the New Orleans-bred MC’s more than capable of greatness on his own.
PTSD – G Herbo
G Herbo may seem like a veteran because of his maturity, lyrical content and his tenure in the rap game, but the Chicago-bred MC is still only 24 years old. PTSD is Herbo’s most complete project yet as he shows growth in his song-making abilities, flows and lyricism. The title track is a standout record from the album featuring Chance The Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert and the late Juice WRLD. The eerie song sees all four artists dive into the topics of violence, survival and death from their unique perspectives.
All My Heroes Are Dead – R.A. The Rugged Man
R.A. The Rugged Man once again takes no prisoners on his latest solo affair. Armed with an arsenal of brutal bars and notable guests such as Ghostface Killah, Ice-T, Masta Killa and Chuck D, he proudly carries the torch for Golden Era Hip Hop throughout the 22-track project.
The Price Of Tea In China – Boldy James & Alchemist
Anyone who listened to Boldy James knows his talent, but the Detroit-bred MC reminded Hip Hop heads of his true potential with The Price Of Tea In China. Seven years after teaming up with Alchemist on My 1st Chemistry set, Boldy reconnected with ALC for another studio album. In doing so, he crafted his finest work to date.. With Alchemist as the conductor, Boldy surpasses the standard of his past full-length projects and conveys one of the most vivid depictions of Motor City street life in recent memory. ALC truly brings the best out of Boldy, helping him reach new creative heights with their sophomore LP as a duo.
Unlocked – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats
Denzel Curry keeps finding ways to switch things up and stay fresh. With the help of producer Kenny Beats, Zeltron concocted one of his most clever projects in the surprise release Unlocked. Although the album lasts less than 20 minutes, the eight-song LP manages to effectively deliver on its concept. Based on the premise of an album leak, the brief cuts and abrupt endings capture the feeling of listening to something from the vaults that fans weren’t meant to hear. Even the song titles play along with the idea of being stolen from an artist’s computer with names like “Take_it_Back_v2” and “Cosmic.m4a.” Accentuated by a visual component that bolsters the concept, Curry and Kenny’s Unlocked makes for one of Hip Hop’s most imaginative creations in 2020.
The Allegory – Royce Da 5’9
When Nickle Nine puts pen to paper, he consistently digs deep and pulls out some undeniably intense, always well crafted bars. Much like the Book Of Ryan, The Allegory delivers more of the Motor City MC’s stark observations on the culture and everything in between. Album highlights include “Black Savage,” “Young World,” “On The Block” and “The Perspective” — Eminem’s spoken word interlude on racism and Hip Hop. Additional contributions come from KXNG Crooked, G Perico, Vince Staples and DJ Premier, among others.
Meet The Woo 2 – Pop Smoke
Before his untimely death, Pop Smoke’s Meet The Woo was the concrete audio soundtrack leveling New York rap back to its bullying dominance. Following his February 19 murder, the sentiment on his music still remains, obviously with a bit more reverence. From the club-rocking “Shake The Room” featuring Quavo to the radio-catchy “Foreigner” featuring A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Meet The Woo 2 is loaded with examples of star potential. Brooklyn is hurting.
Here are some other albums that we still have in rotation from each month of 2020.
OTHER FAVORITES FROM JANUARY
Music To Be Murdered By – Eminem
Slim Shady’s Music To Be Murdered By — much like all of his recent albums — is another polarizing effort as his hyperawareness of the criticism has turned into a regular trope. Despite its flaws, Eminem’s latest LP displays incredible wordplay and once again gives fans of the art of rapping some new rhymes and patterns to marvel at. The album received a score of 3.8 out of 5 from DX, with contributor Scott Glaysher writing, Eminem “keeps his dazzling lyrical tirades on point with a plethora of verses that are damn near impossible to discredit.”
Gravitas – KXNG Crooked & Bronze Nazareth
KXNG Crooked has always been an elite lyricist, but his discography has been missing a clear cut album that stands above the rest as essential. That changed when the respected MC teamed up with Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated producer Bronze Nazareth, who orchestrated Crook’s best work to date on Gravitas.The album received a score of 3.7 out of 5 from DX with contributor Josh Svetz writing, Crook “gets personal, bringing it back to the Golden Era sound with some ill flow and respectable rhymes, supported by a sizable list of old school legends and new school MCs keeping the classic sound alive.”
Revenge of The Dreamers 3: Director’s Cut – Dreamville
J. Cole rounded up his loyal Dreamville lyricists for another installment of Revenge Of The Dreamers last year, which found Lute, EarthGang, J.I.D and the rest of the crew firing on all cylinders. This month, the label returned with a director’s cut of the project featuring 12 new bonus tracks with the usual players delivering nothing but heat.
- The Professionals – Madlib & Oh No
- Heavy Is The Head – Stormzy
- Whenever – Atmosphere
- Price of Fame – Sean Price & Lil Fame
OTHER FAVORITES FROM FEBRUARY
- Black Habits – D Smoke
- Got It Made – Kamaiyah
- Juno – Che Noir
OTHER FAVORITES FROM MARCH
- Rudebwoy – CJ Fly
- Reasonable Drought – Stove God Cook$
OTHER FAVORITES FROM APRIL
- Enter Fear – Tech N9ne
OTHER FAVORITES FROM MAY
- Everything – Kota The Friend
- Tha Chill – FOHEAD
- Beyond Bulletproof – Mozzy
OTHER FAVORITES FROM JUNE
Thank You For Using GTL , Drakeo the Ruler
There’s something about Drakeo’s soft-spoken tones and lackadaisical sound that makes him such an enjoyable listen. The controversially incarcerated LA rapper recorded the vocals from jail. Not only is it one of the best albums of 2020, it’s one of the greatest projects ever recorded from jail. On GTL, Drakeo seems to meander his way into a verse. He’ll start slow with a sparse rhyme scheme, gaining speed as the track progresses before he lays down bars that hit harder than a freight train. Drakeo’s trial begins August 3rd, so stay tuned for updates on the young rapper.
- Little Dominiques Nosebleed – The Koreatown Oddity
OTHER FAVORITES FROM JULY
- Good Cops Don’t Exist – Chris Crack
- Odd Cure – Oddisee
- No Pressure – Logic
- LSD: Lunar Solar Duality – Cambatta
- Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon – Pop Smoke
- LSD: Lunar Solar Duality – Cambatta
OTHER FAVORITES FROM AUGUST
Queen Of Da Souf – Mulatto
Atlanta-based rapper Mulatto continues her phenomenal year with Queen of Da Souf, her widely anticipated follow-up to 2018’s Mulatto. Dripping with sexuality and feminine power, the twenty-one-year-old rapper makes a solid case for the throne. Mulatto doesn’t need a cosign, but with salacious verses from City Girls, Gucci Mane and 21 Savage, she seemingly has the entirety of Atlanta in her corner.
- Felt 4 U – Felt
- Living Off XPerience – The Lox
- Oblivion – Black Noi$e
OTHER FAVORITES FROM SEPTEMBER
- Detroit 2 – Big Sean
- RVLTN (Chapter 3): The Price of Freedom – Bobby Sessions
- Rap N Roll – Dom Kennedy
- The Directors Cut – Curren$y
- What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down – Public Enemy
Editor’s Note: In order for an album to qualify for the official list, it must have received a DX Review score of 4.0 or higher. Honorable mentions may have received a lower score.