Vic Spencer – “Psychological Cheat Sheet” (GourmetDeluxxx.BandCamp.Com) – Joined by the brilliant August Fanon on production duties, Chicago’s inimitable Vic Spencer dropped verses packed with punchlines, dry humour and charisma throughout this album. As ever, Vic came across as the type of artist who would kick it with you for a few minutes if you bumped into him on the street, but he’d also be likely to laugh in the face of your favourite rapper if they happened to walk past.
Royce 5’9 – “The Allegory” (Royce59.Com) – This self-produced effort found Royce using the same microscopic attention to detail he’d applied to his personal life throughout 2018’s brilliant “Book Of Ryan”, but this time he turned to look outwards at wider society. Covering issues such as racism, violence and economic inequality, the Detroit artist used laser-like lyrical precision to cut through the noise and deliver some striking commentary on life in Amerikkka.
Stove God Cooks – “Reasonable Drought” (The Conglomerate Entertainment / Marci Enterprises) – 2020 was a breakout period for Stove God Cooks, but this was definitely no overnight success story, with the NY emcee having spent recent years working with both Lord Jamar and Busta Rhymes under the name Aaron Cooks prior to Roc Marciano’s involvement in his career. But it wasn’t just the name change and album full of Marci beats that gained people’s attention, it was also Cooks’ ability to breathe new life into the coke-rap genre with his distinctive delivery and creative punchlines involving references to aliens, singer Jon B and DITC’s Diamond D, amongst others.
Verbz & Mr Slipz – “Radio Waves” (HighFocus.Com) – Proving themselves to be a potent partnership, this full-length collaboration from London emcee Verbz and Brighton-based producer Mr Slipz was an absolute gem of an album, blending inner-city introspection and mellow beats with sublime results. Appearances from the likes of Melanin 9, Confucius MC and Coops added further depth to what was already an impressive release.
Craig G – “The Fragile Ego” (Soulspazm) – Juice Crew legend Craig G put us all on the therapist’s couch with this thematic release revolving around the human psyche. In today’s social media-driven era of instant gratification and the constant desire people have for attention, the Queensbridge-raised emcee took a step back to look at how our relationship with our ego can impact mental health and have real life consequences. Compelling stuff.
Oddisee – “Odd Cure” (Oddisee.BandCamp.Com) – In mid-July, inspired by the shared pandemic experience being endured globally and heightened social tensions in America, DMV favourite Oddisee dropped this life-affirming EP which dealt with the realities of the situation, with some moments of light relief sprinkled throughout. Leaning heavily on live instrumentation, which gave the EP a warm, soulful feel, this release may not have solved all the problems people were facing, but it did provide a welcome distraction from the madness.
D.C. Cortez & Drew Dave – “Stoop Stories” (DrewDaveMusic.BandCamp.Com) – Emcee / producer duo D.C. Cortez and Drew Dave stopped to take a look around in order to craft this observational, concept-based project inspired by everyday life in America’s capital city. Dealing with issues such as systemic racism, gentrification, education, unemployment, family and friendships, Cortez tackled potentially difficult subject matter in an engaging, conversational manner, complimented by Drew Dave’s full-bodied beats.
Conway The Machine – “From King To A GOD” (WhoIsConway.Com) – The third 2020 project from The Machine found the Buffalo emcee balancing the code of the streets with the politics of the rap game, as Conway acknowledged the pain and loss he still experiences due to his connections with hood life, whilst dealing with new pressures and issues associated with his rising industry reputation. Perhaps Conway’s most revealing release to date, fittingly original production from the likes of Daringer, Beat Butcha and DJ Premier really allowed his verses to resonate.
Rashid Hadee – “6 Packs & Cognac” (RashidHadee.Com) – The Chicago artist delivered lyrics with substance throughout this dope six-track EP, featuring production from Kenny Keys, Nottz, 5ifth Element and Hadee himself. Offering thoughts on the realities of life as a Black male in the Windy City, Rashid addressed issues such as police brutality, white privilege and mental health, with the finished product providing heads with a poignant listening experience.
MidaZ The Beast – “Where The Sidewalk Ends” (MidaZTheBeast.BandCamp.Com) – Orlando’s MidaZ teamed-up with producer Delle Digga to craft this collection of short-but-effective tracks which played like sonic chapters in an engrossing musical book. Needing to be heard in its entirety to be fully appreciated, the relationship here between the Florida-based emcee’s detailed verses and Digga’s subtle, sample-based tracks was nothing less than exquisite.
Phoenix Da Icefire x The Strange Neighbour – “Cinematic” (RevorgRecords.BandCamp.Com) – A clever album, this film-influenced collaboration between London’s Phoenix Da Icefire and producer Strange Neighbour offered plenty of high-definition, action-packed beats and rhymes, drawing listeners in with gripping lyrical narratives and a dramatic, well-crafted score. Pass the popcorn!
Tesla’s Ghost – “Strange Heirlooms” (TeslasGhost.BandCamp.Com) – A true lyrical craftsman, Triple Darkness emcee Tesla’s Ghost has an incredible talent for penning verses that combine raw street rhetoric with striking gothic-like imagery, leading listeners into a captivating creative space somewhere between reality and fiction. Production from the likes of Evil Ed, Karnate and The Historian provided the Ghost with some fittingly moody and eerie sonic backdrops. Play this only at night.
Sleep Sinatra – “No Anthems” (SleepSinatra1.BandCamp.Com) – When you’re an emcee who constructs lyrics that are as intricate and layered as those penned by Sleep Sinatra, you have to choose your beats carefully. On this release, the Nebraska-based artist found ideal musical allies in the form of production duo Parish & Bird, whose brand of understated mellow madness gave the rhymes here plenty of room to breathe, with Sinatra’s expert wordplay floating over hypnotic soundscapes.
Willie Waze – “Avant Scarred” (WillieWaze.BandCamp.Com) – Virginia-based emcee Willie Waze used the events of 2020 as inspiration for this honest, hard-hitting release, with production from the likes of DreamLife Beats, Kount Fif and Jewels Polaar bolstering the talented wordsmith’s striking bars. Acting almost as an audio diary, Waze did a great job here of expressing his thoughts, feelings and experiences during these undeniably turbulent times.
Ransom & Nicholas Craven – “Director’s Cut: Scene Two” (Presidential / Momentum) – Jersey City emcee Ransom definitely left his mark on 2020, releasing a trilogy of “Director’s Cut” projects with Canada’s Nicholas Craven behind the boards that effectively showcased his formidable rhyme skills. To be fair, any of the pair’s releases could have filled a slot on this list, but there was something about the “Scene Two” EP that stood-out to me in particular. Craven’s soulful-yet-melancholy production really brought the emotion out of Ransom’s hard-knock life lyricism on this one.
Elzhi – “Seven Times Down Eight Times Up” (FBDistribution.BandCamp.Com) – Former Slum Village member Elzhi’s first full-length release since 2016 was a deep dive into the Detroit representative’s mind-state, produced entirely by JR Swiftz. Encouraging persistence and resilience in all areas of life, not one word was wasted here, as Elzhi rhymed with a clear purpose, further cementing his status as one of the rap game’s most talented artists.
Oliver Sudden – “Sudden Impact” (RevorgRecords.BandCamp.Com) – This self-produced full-length from the Cronx Don Oliver Sudden was full of South London swagger, soulful loops and sharp wit. Taking time to look back on his career so far, whilst also looking towards what is still to be achieved, this album felt like the work of an artist taking stock of their position in life before embarking on the next chapter of their journey. Quality beats and rhymes.
Radio B – “All ARt AiN’t PreTTy” (KillTheDreamer.Com) – How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That was the question posed at the beginning of this album from Richmond, Virginia’s Radio B. The content of the project, however, made it very clear what the talented emcee’s answer to that particular query was. Released during the summer, following the tragic murder of George Floyd and with protests sweeping across American cities, Radio B used this album to drop social commentary, encourage Black pride and inspire independent thought. Powerful.
Magno Garcia x Chairman Chow – “Ba-Loo-S” (ChairmanChow.BandCamp.Com) – A great collaboration between two gifted Boston individuals, Magno Garcia’s contemplative, street-smart rhymes found a perfect match here in the boom-bap-influenced, boundary-pushing production of Chairman Chow. The pair definitely proved themselves to be a good combination throughout this release, increasing hopes that they’ll be working together again in the future.
Athletic Mic League – “Playground Legends Vol. 1” (AthleticMicleague.BandCamp.Com) – Originally hailing from Michigan but with members now scattered across the US, the Athletic Mic League crew (responsible for such underground favourites as 2002’s “Sweats And Kicks”) reunited for this quality seven-track EP, with the likes of Buff1, 14KT and DJ Haircut (aka Mayer Hawthorne) proving that the group’s chemistry and bond were both as strong as ever.
Part Five (the final instalment) coming soon.