What’s left to say about 2020 that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s been an unforgettable twelve months that will have affected everyone in different ways. But during a year of change, worry, loss and uncertainty, music has remained an important and consistent sanctuary for many of us – word to Gary Bartz!
The pace of releases throughout 2020 has been relentless and the level of quality extremely high, which meant that when I sat down before Christmas to start compiling this annual Old To The New ‘best-of’, I was initially looking at a list of approximately three-hundred-and-fifty notable projects which had caught my attention throughout the year.
As always, the criteria used to reduce the size of that list was simple – which albums and EPs had I enjoyed the most?
So, with all that being said, huge thanks to everyone who dropped good music during 2020 and played a part in helping to ease the day-to-day pressures of so many – as Digital Underground once said, you get those heartbeat props.
Now, in no particular order, it’s about that time…
Busta Rhymes – “Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God” (ELE2.BustaRhymesUniverse.Com) – As suggested by its title, this long-awaited project from the mighty Busta Rhymes truly was one of the year’s ‘event’ albums, largely receiving a collective nod of approval from Hip-Hop heads across social media in the days following its release. Effectively providing what you’d expect to hear from a veteran emcee on a greatest hits collection, but via new material instead, “ELE 2” showcased all facets of the former Leaders Of The New School member’s artistry, personality and character. Rowdy, Dungeon Dragon Busta. Playful, party-starting Busta. Timberland-wearing, East-Coast stompin’ Busta. Radio-friendly Busta. Socially-aware, Five Percent / Nation Of Islam-influenced Busta. All of the above and more could be found here, on an album which not only further cemented Busta’s legacy as a genuine Hip-Hop great, but also delivered music that captured and reflected the energy of 2020.
Juga-Naut – “Bem” (JugaNaut.BandCamp.Com) – Released to coincide with his 30th birthday, this largely self-produced triumph from Nottingham’s Juga-Naut added further weight to the opinion that this multi-talented artist is one of the best of his generation. Steeped in true-school tradition whilst avoiding banal nostalgia, “Bem” effortlessly achieved the balancing act of sounding (and feeling) both familiar and fresh. This was upper-echelon emceeing, as stated by the man himself.
Uptown XO – “Culture Over Corporate” (OneForceUnited.BandCamp.Com) – The Washington DC-based lyricist (of Diamond District fame) started 2020 off the right way with this incredibly dope solo album, which featured XO delivering thought-provoking rhymes over soulful, speaker-rattling production from Drew Dave, touching on issues that would become major talking points as the year unfolded.
Lyric Jones – “Closer Than They Appear” (LyricJones.BandCamp.Com) – Boston-raised, LA-based Lyric Jones showcased both her influences and musical range on this exceptional album, weaving together a rich tapestry of sound that was simultaneously diverse and cohesive. Drawing on both struggles and triumphs as inspiration, the gifted artist packed a lot of herself into this project, resulting in an album that was as personal as it was entertaining. This was music that stuck to your soul.
Brainorchestra -“Marmalade” (Brainorchestra.BandCamp.Com) – A quality collection of rugged-but-smooth mood music, this album found New Jersey’s Brainorchestra utilising his sharp delivery to slice through mellow, loop-based production from the likes of Ohbliv, Foisey and Big Daddy Chop with slick, bravado-fuelled verses that were rich in rewind-worthy lines.
Kamanchi Sly – “Electrosis” (KamanchiSly.Com) – Tugging on the heartstrings of ageing b-boys everywhere, UK legend Kamanchi Sly pulled out his fat laces, name-plate belt buckle and Nike windbreaker to take a moonwalk down memory lane with this brilliantly executed tribute to the electro sounds of the early-80s. Capturing the urgent creativity and futuristic flavour of that particular time period, the Hijack emcee’s lively, spontaneous rhymes sat perfectly atop the pulsating, self-produced soundscapes found here. Don’t stop the rock!
Strizzy Strauss – “Trust The Process” (IAmStrizzyStrauss.BandCamp.Com) – Grounded in the realities of life’s everyday drama but buoyed by a genuine sense of hope and optimism, this full-length debut from Leicester’s Strizzy Strauss built on the promise of the down-to-earth emcee’s previous material, showcasing his natural ability to deliver relatable rhymes that resonate with honesty and integrity.
Casual – “Big Head Science” (Casual1.BandCamp.Com) – Hieroglyphics legend Casual (aka Smash Rockwell) made a welcome return with his latest long-player which featured the West Coast wordsmith delivering an onslaught of lyrical destruction alongside the likes of Planet Asia, Killah Priest and Ras Kass, demonstrating the same swaggering skills that ensured his 1994 debut “Fear Itself” left an indelible mark on the rap game.
Heist Life – “Get Money Teach Babies” (SauceHeist.BandCamp.Com) – In 2020, the Bronx kept creating it! Rotten Apple rhymers $auce Heist and Ty Da Dale matched street-smart, Five Percent-influenced verses with drum-heavy production from Spanish Ran throughout this eight-track dose of uncut New York Hip-Hop, which also featured Flee Lord, Rome Streetz and Tree Mason.
Spittzwell x Boog Brown – “Summer Daze Vol. 1” (Spittzwell1.BandCamp.Com) – Refreshing like a cool breeze, Detroit-raised, Atlanta-based emcee Boog Brown glided over the sublime, jazz-influenced production of fellow ATL resident Spittzwell on this quality addition to her already impressive catalogue – sincere and inspiring.
Rocdwell – “SIMPLICITY (The Life That Makes The Songs)” (Rocdwell.BandCamp.Com) – Dropping very early in the year, this full-length release from Detroit’s Rocdwell offered plenty of lyrical food for thought, encouraging listeners to step back from the Matrix of our daily existence, focus on what’s really important in a world full of distractions, and grab life with a renewed sense of purpose. A message which carried further weight as 2020 progressed.
Dell-P – “MEGA (Make Emceeing Great Again)” (Dell-P.BandCamp.Com) – Philadelphia’s Dell-P made good on his promise to make emceeing great again throughout this 16-track opus, delivering well-crafted verses full of substance and character over a varied selection of beats. No throwaway tracks or filler to be found here, “MEGA” was the sound of an artist determined to uplift and inform his audience whilst further building on his reputation as a highly-skilled lyricist.
Skyzoo & Dumbo Station – “The Bluest Note” (TuffKongRecords.BandCamp.Com) – Backed by the organic jazz grooves of Italy’s Dumbo Station band, Brooklyn’s Skyzoo added yet another release to his already impeccable discography in the form of this six-track EP. A genuine master of his craft, the New York emcee has been at the top of his game for so long now it would be easy to take his brand of top-tier lyricism for granted. We shouldn’t. Skyzoo is one of the best in the rap game with a catalogue of work that should be celebrated at every given opportunity.
Fly Anakin – “at the end of the day.” (MutantAcademyRVA.BandCamp.Com) – Richmond, Virginia’s Mutant Academy crew continued to prove themselves to be one of the most talented collectives currently dropping music with a string of releases throughout 2020, starting in January with this quality project from core member Fly Anakin. Flexing his energetic, engaging flow over perfectly chosen production from Graymatter, All Ceven, Ohbliv and more, Anakin took listeners deep into his VA state of mind.
Apollo Brown & Che’ Noir – “As God Intended” (MelloMusicGroup.BandCamp.Com) – The creative chemistry between Detroit’s Apollo Brown and Buffalo’s Che’ Noir resulted in an album that sounded like the pair had been working together closely for years. Che’s descriptive and at times painfully personal rhymes gave this project a real emotional depth, whilst the subtle tweaks Brown made to his signature style to compliment and enhance the talented emcee’s flow further demonstrated his skill as a producer.
Superbad Solace – “Sol Controller 2” (SuperbadSolace.BandCamp.Com) – Timeless Truth member Superbad Solace returned with a worthy sequel to his 2018 solo release, once again teaming up with producer Mono En Stereo (formerly known as El RTNC) to capture the essence of Rotten Apple rap, blending New York straight talk and a natural flyness with an exquisite selection of beats and loops.
Kinetik & Micall Parknsun – “Spin Cycle” (IAmKinetik.BandCamp.Com) – Calling on production supremo Micall Parknsun to provide beats for this impressive EP, London-based emcee (and Breaking Atoms podcast host) Kinetik covered a lot of lyrical ground here, using his conversational flow to deftly switch from humorous recollections and witty punchlines to social commentary and poignant observations.
Milano Constantine – “Winston Wolf” (MilanoConstantine.BandCamp.Com) – Diggin’ In The Crates affiliate Milano has spent the last two decades dropping consistently strong material, with his skills appearing to reach new levels of Ginsu-like sharpness on each release. This short five-track offering was another potent showcase of the NY emcee’s infinite talent, with Constantine still clearly influenced by the Rotten Apple of his youth yet managing to avoid sounding tied to any particular time period thanks to his effortless flow.
Helsinki Booze Merchants – “Film Poster Whips” (BrokeRecords.BandCamp.Com) – With alter-egos in full effect, UK wordsmiths Luca Brazi (Lasagna Baghdad), Benny Diction (Paolo Pumpernickel) and MNSR Frites (Bald Daniels) offered up a dope concept-based project which aimed to deliver “an introspective take on getting older in rap and an appreciation for the finer things” in the trio’s own unique style. They succeeded. Packed with punchline-heavy verses, laced with humour, sarcasm and, at times, self-deprecation, this was a thoroughly entertaining release on all levels.
Godfather Don & Parental – “Osmosis” (DJParental.BandCamp.Com) – NYC’s Godfather Don became a cult figure within underground Hip-Hop circles back in the 90s and rightly so. The Brooklyn rhymer’s brain-busting wordplay ensured tracks like “Properties Of Steel” and “Piece Of The Action” were widely-received as classics during the decade’s independent era. For this new project, Don joined forces with French producer Parental, whose well-established brand of polished beats provided a solid backdrop for the Godfather’s forthright, competition-crushing verses.
Check Part Two here.