I’d like to preface this article by acknowledging and bringing to your attention that there is an ongoing struggle for black liberation in America; it is our utmost duty to do everything we can in support of this movement, especially so as fans of hip-hop. Police are still killing unarmed minorities in the streets, the system which governs us is still designed to sequester and oppress people of color, and there is still a horrifying and grave level of inequality plaguing our country. So continue to go to protests, sign petitions, make donations get loud, and get angry — because the struggle is far from over.
In any case, here are my rap highlights of 2020 so far.
Conway the Machine
This year has been the year in which Griselda finally broken through to more mainstream audiences, and whilst the bulk of the attention has been focused on Westside Gunn, to me the one who has truly had the best year so far has been Conway the Machine. If Westside Gunn is the luxuriating mob boss in Griselda’s theoretical mobster lore, then the Machine is the cold, calculated foot soldier; and to that end, he is at his absolute apex over the grimy Alchemist and Big Ghost LTD production on LuLu and No One Mourns the Wicked. Conway’s technical prowess on these records is unmatched; in particular, his ability to string together endless three-syllable rhymes off one single rhyme scheme without it sounding stale is one that would make even the most puritan of hip hop fans salivate. What’s more, these two albums are a practically endless fountain of hard bars and heinous punch-lines — ”I see a pussy n***a, I’ma spray his car / Pass the gun to bro, he Draymond Green, he gon’ take the charge” (Icon) and “I move the powder on the side, it ain’t talcum / I was in the trap, Draco by the blinds like Malcolm” (Shoot Sideways) just to name a few.
Whilst Conway’s penchant for menace is nothing new, these two records see him begin to interpose a bit more introspection than usual. Now, Conway lets listeners in through personal details and stories from his hard-knock past, to a degree which shows real growth in his trajectory as an artist. For Conway, it is clear that this is a part of the regenerative process: as he puts it succinctly on “The Contract”, he wants to “toast to [his] enemies… toast to [his] injuries / Turn [his] negatives to positive, [without any] sympathy.” It it is this which Conway’s art really is; it is a transmutation of his “negatives” to “positive”, of his past struggles to future glory, and his raps are the conduit for this fantastical alchemy to occur. That’s why, to me, the standout track from these two albums is “Bricks to Murals”; the song as a concept, both in title and with its beat switch from the initial bleak, menacing production to a lush soul sample, perfectly encapsulate this phenomenon which thematically seems to be at heart of much of Conway’s work.
Bandgang Lonnie Bands & Shredgang Mone — Shred 2
Hip Hop is in a place right now where, were we to look into a crystal ball, the mainstream seems likely to be dominated by Young Thug and Future clones for the foreseeable future. But a glimmer of hope arises in defiance of Atlanta’s cultural stranglehold, and it comes by way of the rap renaissance Detroit is currently undergoing. Where Atlanta employs vibrant beats and crooned lean talk, Detroit substitutes hard nosed keys, bouncy basslines, and scam rap. What is particularly exciting about Detroit, is the incredible depth of the scene. Practically every time I open up my YouTube homepage there’s a new Detroit rapper who’s barbed shit-talking and zippy punchlines are putting the timeline on notice. The city’s vast cadre of talent have already released a litany of albums this year which have turned heads — Icewear Vezzo’s Drank Baby, Cash Kidd’s No Socks, and Sada Baby’s SkuBaRu to name a few — but, it is the output of BandGang Lonnie Bands and ShredGang Mone which far and away demands the most attention.
The two have already each released their own respective albums this year which deserve a listen — but it is when the two collaborate that their talent shines the most. Shred 2, the sequel to the wildly viral “Shred,” is the perfect example of the duo’s innate chemistry. Part of what makes the combo so great is the pairing of their contrasting deliveries — Mone is resolute and unflappable, the perfect counterbalance to Bands’ hyena howls and erratic, unorthodox flows. As the two trade lines with the concision of a duo who have been working together for a decade, they do so with a level of swagger and general disdain which is simply magnetic. The end result is a song which indicates, in the strongest of musical terms, that if there is anyone to watch coming out of this scene, it’s these two. Oh, and this song also happens to be the only time in my life that I have ever heard a feces-related-pun bar and genuinely thought to myself, Damn. That was hard. (I’m looking at you J. Cole!). On that fact alone, it deserves your listen.
Evidence — Unlearning (Produced by Graymatter)
Evidence is perhaps one of the only veteran MC’s who hasn’t yet plateaued and continues to somehow continuously get better with each passing release. More than twenty years into his career, it’s pretty clear that he has cornered the market on the slow flow — absolutely no one can do it like him. His delivery on this track is impressionist; almost every other bar is spaced out by one of Evidence’s trademark contemplative pauses, causing the message and import of each of his lyrics to hang in the air for the listener to ponder, if only for the moment. This delivery paired with the spacey production from Graymatter, who is an exciting new producer from the up and coming Mutant Academy crew from Richmond, VA, culminates into a song which can only be described as ethereal.
The music video itself is half of the brilliance of the song; it is a video which is as hazy and diffusive as the beat which Evidence is rapping over. In particular, the shots at 1:05, where Evidence’s shadowy silhouette is sitting in front of a window with meek, gray sunlight filtering through the blinds behind him, are strikingly atmospheric. As Evidence sits there, doling out his slow-rapped game, the scene gives the air of a sage shaman of rhyme delivering revelations from beyond the pale. A more perfect summation of Evidence’s talent as a rapper than this, I cannot imagine.
Sheff G — One and Only
The loss of Pop Smoke is a terrible blow for the New York Drill scene. Not only because of the loss of talent itself, but also because of the loss of the spotlight that Pop Smoke’s talent would have brought to the rest of the artists in the scene. The question now becomes, who will take the mantle of New York Drill? To me, the only one with the talent to truly fill these enormous shoes is Sheff G. On One and Only, Sheff G raps with the air of one who has seen it all, of one who maintains no illusions about the great mass of suffering which drapes this Earth, but also one who is all the wiser because of it. If Pop Smoke’s appeal was in his brazen shit talking and graveled voice, then perhaps it is fitting that Sheff G finds strengths in his heartfelt street stories and stoic, baritone delivery. In the face of Pop Smokes death, it serves as a reminder of that which many casual listeners forget: that the music from this scene is not just consumable media, but representative of a real ongoing struggle that affects real people and real lives.
When you hear the slight despondency in his voice as he raps, “I was locked down when they put them chains on me,” on the Sleepy Hollow assisted “Weight On Me”, or as you hear him reflect, “late nights on the block it was me n’ Sleep / nowhere to sleep / … Lost so many of my dawgs like I need a leash,” on “2nd Intro”, one can truly feel the pain of this era of mass incarceration, redlining, and institutional racism manifested through his words. Whilst there has been much talk about the return of political rap (what with Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” and the J. Cole — Noname saga), we must recognize that rap is already in and of itself a political artform. It is an artform which is forged in the struggle in hoods across America, and the messages which it consequently creates, which so many mainstream listeners casually dismiss, are deeply indicative of the great inequality which is at our country’s heart. In this sense, Sheff G’s project should be viewed not only as an incredible piece of work musically speaking, but also an urgent political message. One can only hope America will heed it.
Q Prodigal — 24 (Produced by Kypat)
Q Prodigal, an up and coming rapper from Rochester, NY, is an artist who creates much in the same vein as the Mavis, MIKEs, and Earl Sweatshirts of the rap world — that is to say, his tools are that of unorthodox vocal sample loops, expressionist lyrics, and a well crafted, abstract aesthetic. One song in particular shows the exciting promise of the rapper: “24”, produced by Prodigal’s long time friend Kypat. The vocal sample on the song is masterclass, and Prodigal clearly knows as much; he allows it to do much of the heavy lifting by interpolating it’s melody into his chorus and letting words of the sample occasionally poke through to complete one of his bars or lines. It is a sample which perfectly captures the beauty of bittersweet melancholy, one which evokes a feeling of longing which you can only feel in the very depths of your soul.
But as good as the production is, I’d be remiss if I did not laud Prodigal’s presence on the track equally so. Prodigal’s lyrics — ”Shoot a n***a for you, I implored you just to give a fuck” — are those of a love song, but it is one which pulls no punches in painting love as it really is. Love commonly isn’t black and white nor the fairy tale we so often hear, this track seems to suggest; love is ugly, love is hard, love is anger, desire, and beauty all wrapped up into one jumbled mess. Prodigal’s trademark unique delivery sees great effect to this end; he frequently allows his voice to crack on the track, something which when other rappers do it it can at times feel corny, but when done by him here, adds greatly to this general feeling of longing which the song captures so well. Clearly, Prodigal is both a natural and unique talent on the mic; watching his development as an artist from here on out will indubitably be exciting.
Freddie Gibbs — Alfredo
Gibbs’ flow on his latest album, Alfredo, is as impeccable as it always is — like the musical equivalent of golden, melted butter, drizzling effortlessly over whatever masterful soundscape Alchemist has cooked up for him. Oh, and Alchemist — the near thirty-year veteran’s beats are somehow still as poignant as ever, a testament to his legend status as an unshakable fixture of the industry. The album is consistent throughout (so much so that I genuinely cannot decide upon a favorite song), but at the same time each track carries a unique vibe and atmosphere: “Frank Lucas” summons to mind a dingy crack basement, “1985” sounds like something you would listen to as you drive out of town and never come back, “Something to Rap About” sounds like, as Tyler the Creator puts it on his verse, “the boat [you] haven’t bought yet / the moment [you] jump off it.” To top it all off, the album entertains two Griselda features as well — a collaboration which fans have clamored for for years.
I mean, how could you not love this? The album is littered with lyrical gems and clever wordplay, and whether the purpose be for Freddie’s timeless coke raps — ”Geekers beamin’ up to Scotty in my crack lobby, I can smell the ‘caine burnin’ / Michael Jordan, 1985, bitch, I travel with a cocaine circus” — or to evoke deceptively profound socio economic commentary — ”when I touched that crack I let them crackers take control of me” — Gibbs’ pen remains one of the sharpest in the game. Alfredo is another one to add to the books, and another validation of Gibb’s long held claim of being one of the most technically gifted rappers in the game. Although there has been much drama and hubbub recently regarding Gibbs’ status in the pantheon of the genre, the album, like the countless which have preceded it, speaks for itself. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind: Freddie Gibbs is, unequivocally, a legend.
Summer 2020 seems to be 42 Dugg’s coming out party. He’s already skyrocketed to nearly 5.5 million monthly Spotify listeners, an explosion from the comparatively measly 120,000 monthly listeners he was raking in in February. It should surprise no one however — Dugg was given two features on Lil Baby’s deluxe album, one of which, “Grace”, is perhaps the best feature of the year. Dugg tactically followed this up with a properly timed deluxe album release of his own, and the rest is history. If Atlanta is the predominant strain of hip hop in the mainstream, and Detroit’s street rap has the potential to shake that order up, then 42 Dugg, with the Lil Baby co-sign to boot, is the bridge between the two scenes. In fact, Dugg’s ability to parlay together the sing-song crooning of Atlanta with the sharp delivery of the city from which he hails is precisely what makes him so good.
Dugg’s Young & Turnt 2, has some of my favorite songs to come out this year: the shouty, adrenaline-pumping chorus on “Free Dem Boyz” is practically tailor-made for bumping in the car at max volume with all the windows down; the bittersweet, but victorious, “Hard Times” is the perfect anthem for a summer spent inside; and the Bandgang Masoe assisted street soliloquy “East vs West” showcases Dugg’s emotional versatility, and his willingness to put on for some of the lesser known artists from Detroit’s street scene. Every year has a rapper who seems to explode out of nowhere; 2018 was the year of Juice WRLD, 2019 that of DaBaby, and now 2020 seems to be 42 Dugg’s for the taking. In any case, whatever the future holds for Dugg, one thing is for sure: he’s here to stay, or, as he puts it on “Free Dem Boyz”, “for life n***a… not just this summer.”