“THE CHAUNCEY HOLLIS PROJECT” Hit-Boy
The pandemic felt like it froze time, and nostalgia became an easy coping mechanism. But Hit-Boy’s 2020 was a constant reminder that looking back would be taking the easy way out. He could’ve easily reached in his pocket for any of the smashes he crafted over the past 10 years — from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “N----- In Paris” (remember when they were best buds?) or Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” (he was so young!) or Beyoncé's “Flawless” (that was really six years ago?!). Instead, he relentlessly churned out project after quality project, rich with well-plucked samples and lively with drum patterns that work in cars, clubs, or — in the time of COVID — on couches. If it wasn’t Nas’s bounce-back album “King’s Dead” or Big Sean’s return with “Detroit 2,” it was a change-of-pace team-up with Griselda’s Benny The Butcher for “Burden of Proof” or another chapter in his series of collaborations with LA loyalist Dom Kennedy. But Hit-Boy’s solo project established what would be both a mission statement and a blueprint for not only pushing through a tough year, but thriving in it.
“ALFREDO” Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist
With a combination of well-honed skill and sheer force of will, Gibbs and Alchemist made uncompromising lyricism and stripped-down samples fashionable again. Still high on the praise from last year’s “Piñata,” Gibbs doesn’t give any ground on the drug life narratives at the foundation of his slick rhymes. He took the bag full of beatmaking gems he was gifted by The Alchemist — known to mine ’70s soul until he finds diamonds — and turned them into a Grammy-nominated statement album.
“SPILLIGION” Spillage Village
If Atlanta rap had a family tree, you could find the offspring of Gucci Mane, Future, and Young Thug running up and down the Billboard charts. But Spillage Village has the Dungeon Family’s DNA coursing through them. The collective of EarthGang, JID, Mereba, 6lack, Benji., Hollywood JB, and Jurdan Bryant have a worldly curiosity and consciousness that Goodie Mob brought to rap in the ’90s along with a creative restlessness and rebellion that Outkast flaunted well into the 2000s. Their spaced-out boho sound is by no means at odds with trap, its more of a call and response.
“A WRITTEN TESTIMONY” Jay Electronica
At the start of the 2010s, after the enigmatic New Orleans rapper grabbed rap by the collar with “Exhibit C,” some people genuinely believed the world would stop when he dropped his debut album. They probably didn’t have a pandemic in mind. A decade is a long time to make people wait. The short notice he gave was met with eye rolls. Bringing in Jay-Z to tamp down some of the expectations didn’t necessarily help either. But Electronica has a way of hopscotching between the mystical, spiritual, political, and emotional with an observing eye, a writerly way with words, and some Southern charm that makes being late OK sometimes.
“SPRING CLEAN” Curren$y and Fuse 100
The world could shut down and Curren$y probably wouldn’t notice. His roll, rap, and repeat process was built for times like these. While everyone scrambled for ways to pump out content, Spitta rolled out seven albums like it was normal because, for him, it is. His collaborations with Harry Fraud for “The OutRunners” and DJ.Fresh for “The Tonite Show with Curren$y” were high-grade lifestyle raps, but here he links with 808 Mafia’s Fuse 100 to tap into the thump he doesn’t visit often.
“NIGHTMARE VACATION” Rico Nasty
Good luck trying to box Rico into one sound. She picks them up and puts them down, having her way with one until another makes her ears perk up. The beats grab her attention because as soon as she starts rapping, she grabs yours.
“SEVEN TIMES DOWN EIGHT TIMES UP” Elzhi
Elzhi always had supernatural rap powers, but at 42 years old — and long removed from his days breaking ground with Slum Village — he has a perspective that gives his rhymes weight, building on the framework he laid two years ago with Khrysis as “Jericho Jackson.”
“CRUISE USA” Larry June and Cardo
Larry June is only 29 and he’s already your uncle. He does everything at his own pace, especially rapping. He takes his time to make sure you know what he values: “Biking. Drinking smoothies. Rolling up the best weed.” He doesn’t complicate things and, with a beat pack from Cardo, he makes life sound like the breeze it should be.
“CIRCLES” Mac Miller
Intended as a companion to 2018′s “Swimming,” “Circles” is a bittersweet glimpse of what was in store for Miller before he died. With the help of Jon Brion, his songs — drifting between rap and folk, as Miller stretches his croaky voice with all the earnestness he can muster — found the sense of ease he seemed to be searching for.
“THE ALLEGORY” Royce da 5′9″
The magic trick Royce pulls off is making you believe his rhymes are somehow stream of thought. But every word is perfectly picked and precisely placed. For all the big-money brags, he issues a warning about the way money and resources are kept from the people who need them most.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.