The music industry took a big hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rappers weren’t able to do press runs or go on tours — and those are two essential things that are needed to be successful in that line of work. Because of that, leveling up in a time where nothing is really happening is a difficult task to do, but there was a select group of artists who managed to get it done.  

The rappers on this list got right to work this year and didn’t let the pandemic stop their progression. Given they all had solid runs the year before, this group knew a little something about evolving. These rappers took what they already knew, tweaked it a bit and were able to separate from the pack to establish themselves as the breakout stars of the year.

They broke several streaming records, made headlines and the charts weren’t safe from the onslaught of music they were putting out. It’s also important to note each one released a project this year that either grabbed the top spot or are considered the best album of the year. That’s a remarkable feat, especially in a time where the music gets consumed so much faster and everyone is on lockdown with nothing to do but spend time listening to music. 

Lil Baby’s 2020 was historical — from his sales to every feature, he didn’t miss. Benny The Butcher and Griselda reached new levels of success. Megan Thee Stallion got a Beyoncé feature and dropped her debut album while dealing with the aftermath of the Tory Lanez shooting incident. Freddie Gibbs continues to prove that consistently dropping high quality music will yield successful results. YoungBoy Never Broke Again continues to level up his streaming numbers, which were already the highest in the game.

Every year, HipHopDX staff joins in discussions, debates and sometimes heated arguments to come up with a list for our Year End Awards. Review all of our award categories and nominees before the winners are announced beginning December 28, 2020.

The Level-Up Award 2020 Nominees

The 2020 Level-Up Award goes to…


It was a Hot Girl year!

Megan is no stranger to leveling up in her career. Her breakout moment came in 2018 when she dropped her second EP Tina Snow and Meg hasn’t looked back. Meg’s 2020, however, surpasses her breakout year in every way. It all started in March when she unleashed her third EP Suga, which housed the smash single “Savage.” The song became a massive hit on social media and led to Beyoncé hopping on the remix, giving Meg her first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper in the process. Despite getting into a messy situation this summer with Tory Lanez that left her with bullet fragments in her foot, the Houston native couldn’t be stopped. She had the No. 1 single on the charts and broke numerous streaming records in August when she teamed up with Cardi B on the salacious single “WAP.” Outside of the music world, Meg became a force in business, working with Revlon and Fashion Nova on exclusive deals. She even became one of TIME magazine’s 100’s most influential people in the world. With her latest album Good News, Meg is adding on to another big year for her — and it only shows how bright her future is in rap.



The Butcher is here! 

To even say Benny The Butcher had one of the biggest level-ups in 2020 is crazy only because Hip Hop saw a similar run from him in 2019. With no radio play or real media coverage, the artists over at Griselda Records have managed to make the biggest noise in Hip Hop. In 2020, Benny broke out in a significant way with excellent guest features on songs with Westside Gunn, The LOX, T.I. and Lil Wayne. The Buffalo native became such a star that rumors of a Drake collaboration began making its rounds on social media. Benny’s true moment came when he dropped his second studio album, Burden of Proof, in October. Benny teamed up with Grammy Award-winning producer Hit-Boy for the critically acclaimed album that boasted features from Rick Ross, Freddie Gibbs, Wayne, Big Sean, Queen Naija and more. It debuted at No. 27 on the Billboard 200 chart, becoming Griselda Records’ highest-charting album. There has to be more coming from Benny given how frequently the Griselda camp releases music and thanks to this album, he has a much bigger fanbase now that’s tuning in to what he has to say.    


The Rabbit’s Grammy-nomination is well deserved. 

For as long as Freddie Gibbs has been rapping, it feels almost a shame the Indiana native is only now getting his just due. Fresh off the release of 2019’s critically acclaimed Bandana album, Gibbs unleashed another classic project in a collaborative effort with The Alchemist on Alfredo. The album captures Gibbs and Alchemist at the peak of their superpowers as they dropped some of the best music we’ve ever heard from either of them. It debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 chart, becoming the highest-charting album for both men and is widely considered one of the best albums of the year. In June, Gibbs landed a deal at Warner Music Group, a big move for an artist who usually stays in the independent market. He recently linked up with Big Sean and Hit-Boy for the celebratory “4 Thangs.”


Like the title of his No.1 album this year, the Atlanta rapper let the world know it was his turn.

Lil Baby’s ascent was not only one of the biggest of 2020 but also one of the most unexpected. The Atlanta rapper literally began rapping four years ago but has worked on his craft since then — and the results have been remarkable. His second studio album, My Turn, gave Lil Baby his first No. 1 album and he got the top spot again when he dropped the deluxe edition several months later. Lil Baby went from burgeoning rapper to a full-blown superstar in over a year and became so popular he put a $100,000 price tag on his guest features — and rightfully so. He showed out every song he’s been on this year. But most importantly, Lil Baby stepped up to the plate in a huge way when the protests against the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor took over the world. His protest anthem “The Bigger Picture” took things to another level as he tackled the issue of white supremacy and called for unity on the passionate record. Other artists issued statements through their music, but there was something special about Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture.” It labeled him as one of the leaders and a prominent voice in the Black community.


YoungBoy Never Slows Down!

There’s so much to say about YoungBoy Never Broke Again but one undeniable thing is the quality and quantity of work he puts out. The 21-year-old had already achieved massive success since making his debut in 2015, but 2020 took the Baton Rouge native to the next level. In February, YoungBoy released Still Flexin, Still Stepping, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. Two months later, he dropped another mixtape, 38 Baby 2, that took the top spot on the charts. Then in September, he did it again with his second studio album Top. In total, YoungBoy had three No. 1 albums in less than a year — and he still released three more projects in the later months. YoungBoy hasn’t just been killing it with the projects either, he’s having one helluva run as a guest. He’s given artists such as Future, Migos, DaBaby and 2 Chainz fiery verses — and it’s evident YoungBoy doesn’t plan on taking a break anytime soon. He recently released his collaborative project with Rich the Kid titled Nobody Safe in November.


Sean Don went back to his roots to make it back to the top.

After releasing Double or Nothing, Big Sean’s collaborative album with Metro Boomin, he went on a lengthy hiatus to deal with some personal issues. He made his triumphant return in 2020 when Detroit 2 gave Sean his third No.1 album.


Chika is a remarkable story of perseverance, hard work and determination.

The 23-year-old Alabama native went from viral Instagram rapper to Warner Music Group signee in less than two years and is steadily growing her star power with every move she makes. With the Industry Games EP her only proper release, it’s even more impressive she was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best New Artist category earlier this month. Coupled with her NPR Tiny Desks appearance and acting debut in the Jamie Foxx-led Netflix movie Project Power, Chika is undoubtedly on fire


The Cactus Jack representative might be rap’s new hook man.

Don Toliver made his first appearance with a scene-stealing feature on “Can’t Say” off Travis Scott’s 2018 Astroworld album. The world got formally introduced to the Houston-born artist when his debut album gave listeners two hit singles in “No Idea” and “After Party.”


The Kentucky rapper saw a massive increase in streams from 2019 to 2020.

The curly-haired White kid from Louisville, Kentucky has been on a steady climb since breaking out in summer 2018 with his mixtape Loose. 2020 gave us a taste of what’s to come as the remix to his single “Whats Poppin” featuring DaBaby, Tory Lanez and Lil Wayne, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.


She’s one of the realest out the South.

Mulatto has come a long way since being a contestant on Jermaine Dupri’s The Rap Game. She broke out in 2020 with songs such as “Muwop” featuring Gucci Mane and the remix to her hit single “B*tch from da Souf” featuring Saweetie and Trina. Her debut album Queen of Da Souf debuted at No. 44.


The Brooklyn rapper told HipHopDX he’s just getting started.

SAINt JHN has had one of the more quietest runs out of all the entries on this list. He’s released three studio projects but it was a DJ from Kazakhstan who remixed JHN’s hit single “Roses” that really brought attention to the Brooklyn artist.

Be sure to check out some of our other Year End Award Categories below: