Yeah, yeah: 2020 was a Tale of Two Shitties: it was the best of times (for rap music), it was the worst of times (for everything else).
I listened to 666 albums this year, which was a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. What grabs me is the joints that capture the times, that push the art forwards. But also it has to bob my head and shake my brain. So this is the best 20 for 2020. (After the first 4, they’re not in ranking order.)
Here To Go
Many narratives follow the hero’s journey, the fool’s journey — from youth to wisdom, innocence to experience, hope to bitterness, from…what’s that shit, Hobbittown, to Mordor where it all ends in lava and tears. We’re all here to go.
It’s hard to put these three best records of the year in the right order. Unknown Infinite is a clear out-the-box legacy joint, SHRINES has seasoned wisdom, but Nebula is both alpha and omega.
Every time I see that Jay Elec record on a year-end list, I think: well, you slept on Nebula. You fell for that pack of microwaved leftovers that tasted extremely Best Before Dec 21 2012. Y’all climb, I’ll take the shuttle up.
The 19th century equivalent of Killah Priest was William Blake, who said: “If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character, the Philosophic and Experimental would soon be at the Ratio of all things; and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”
(Killah Priest is a better poet than Blake. Yeah, I said it. Come at me, red dragon.)
There were too many records this year which just colored inside the lines. If rap is a spectrum, I’m not interested in what you can paint with primary reds and blues. What’s way out in the microwaves, what’s chopping in staccato gamma rays?
Theoretically, the longest wave in the electromagnetic spectrum would be a radio wave echo from the Big Bang itself. This wave would be the length of the entire universe. That’s some Killah Priest shit.
Burroughs says: What are you here for? We’re here to go. Earth is a space station, and we’re here to go. Into space.
But what Burroughs and Priest both understand is, we’re not gonna get there in a spaceship (fuck you, Elon). Between the eye socket is where I build my sky rocket. We get there through heavy mentals.
1998’s Heavy Mental was a hidden scroll that leapt hip-hop leagues forward, a pan-ghetto Wu-futurist syncretism of Bible, Middle Passage and exodus. Priest put his sword in the stone on it, and walked away to deliver many years’ worth of Heavy Me-not-al records (though in the past few has re-invigorated on joints like Psychic World of Walter Reed and Don’t Sit on the Speakers) — those were midrash and footnotes to the Total Overstanding Raging Against Heaven. But I wasn’t expecting this, a bookending new testament, another light year jump.
There are no drums on this record. He mighta just sampled and looped John Cage’s organ piece which has been playing since 2001 and will finish in 2640. There’s only the hint of ambient, meditative music — bare piano loops, shimmering chimes — behind what is, in fact, twenty chapters of poetry. There must be something like 15,000 words of crafted verses on this record.
The amount and level of writing is just sublime, even when it’s also gloriously ridiculous. I mean, if you break down ‘Magnificent Interview’ — it’s two minutes of K-Pax samples; nostalgia for imagined landscapes that honestly tear me up every time; nostalgia for quieter times, Quiet Storm jams and quiet storms; vegan dishes described in great detail; Lucifer’s bibliography (which includes Brief History on Time Travel and Theology of Star Wars); angels ordering even more vegan food in great detail; Priest and a waitress turning into pillars of salt and a prism. Then there’s two more minutes of K-Pax samples. No one has ever made a rap album like this.
This record is everything. The sun and the moon are there. The planets and the pyramids are there. It reaches back to the ancient and forwards to a future where we escape this prison planet. It’s a journey both in time and space — because they are the same. Andromeda, Atlantis; aliens, angels; ghosts, faces; mental, physical — they’re the same.
Heavy Mental leaned heavier on the Killah, the inner space invader, the prophet warrior bearing Basic Instructions written in black fire on white fire. Nebula is the older, wiser, Priest. It’s like he spent 22 years meditating under a Jovian bodhi with Ghidorah for an umbrella, and came back with this — a UFO pyramid to take 143,999 of us to the promised land. Mental was the training and the launchpad; Nebula is the flight: on ‘Almost There,’ he launched to Saturn and on ‘In Secret Anticipation,’ he brings us a seven minute imagining of an ancient planet Eden.
What gives the record its power is how wistful and nostalgically mourning it is for places and planets and people that only exist in his imagination.
This was a hopeless year. This record reminds us not to be so tempocentric — these things shall pass. There’s vastness and mystery, grace and power, far beyond all this. Also, if you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey backwards while playing this record, it perfectly lines up.
It was pretty much worth watching Westworld for the one episode where homie realizes he’s an immortal Lakota robot trapped in an endlessly recurring cycle of violent death. What does he learn? This is the wrong world. That was some Killah Priest shit too.
There’s a tradition and a throughpoint of New York albums that capture their time, that’s a raw talent jumping out the box, that’s popping with singular voice, that gives the sound a huge shove forward. Autobiographies that capture a year in time, forever — legacy records. It goes something like Illmatic, The Infamous, Cold Vein, So It Goes. And now, Unknown Infinite. What El-P once wrote is ouroboros apropos here:
Illmatic is one of the last great rap records attached directly to the lineage of the history of rap culture in our city. It was inhabited by the spirits of a just passed era and a radiant, moody and raw signifier of the next one.
This record is microwave weaponry for culture wars. King Vision Ultra & co’s beats are like a Terminator stepping on a human skull, forever. ATAB. It’s a viral fever dream with CNN on a loop. Verses and samples weave in and out over blurs and booms — reaching back and embedding the album into history. It seethes, broods, grinds; pops and envelops like a ‘less lethal’ tear gas round to the face. It’s the glitter of broken glass in Molotov cocktail firelight, the fire in which we burn. So hot, so hot, so hot, so what. Song of the Not So Law Abiding Citizen, word to June Jordan. But it’s a cold world out there. That droning is idling refrigerated morgue trucks, full of covid dead.
The record is a commentary and a manifesto. If post-structuralism says that the truth of events is tied to the language describing them, this is an album for the year where truths were battles. Truths were a matter of life and death. This is encoded quantum language for dark time movement signals. The tongue ain’t a toy.
JOHNNY AND LUTHER HTOO HAVE LEFT THE BUILDING.
Listening to Armand Hammer is watching a tag team who know each other’s moves, playing off and pushing each other higher. They run the game, set the bar for everyone else. 2020 was the dumpster fire of history, but they already built ROME in a day and fiddled while it burned. I mean, they already made a song about disinfectant, ffs. They built the temple and then they smashed the moneylenders’ tables.
They might travel fifty years back and only move the pen six inches, and have a time machine that won’t go backwards, but that’s the Kali Yuga for you: cycles within cycles. The Tarot card for death doesn’t mean dying, it just means things change and start over. Shook the hourglass like a snowglobe. Flavor Flav used to say he wore the clock because he knows what time it is. Homeboy is always a day late and a dollar short. That clock spins centrifugal.
SHRINES is a new chapter, which still blows up graceful as third-generation bomb makers, but also takes times to celebrate and smell the flowers. Five cigarettes still says the revolution won’t change shit, but there are moments of beauty along the way.
For your sides, Elucid got his Bad Brains on for Don’t Play It Straight, taking it back to the Police & Thieves days. woods dropped the brain bomb with Moor Mother for BRASS—this one got a steppin’ razor under the obi strip. It’s some Move bombing 1985 vs. exterminating the brute Leopold III in 1885. It's Ganja & Hess Redux. It’s the last scene of Zardoz, blackwards.
Talk of the Town
When I was growing up, we didn’t have the Bible in the house, we had The New Yorker. So it’s cool (but also weird) how there’s the occasional rap article in the New Yorker now, but it’s also kind of like…finding out late in life there’s a verse in Ephesians about Ice Cube? It’s also weird (but maybe cool?) they haven’t covered Armand Hammer, or Open Mike Eagle, or any of these cats. (I mean a full-on profile, not just the little box in Goings On and on the blog. It’s still weird to me that the New Yorker has blogs.)
I mean, it’s the fucking New Yorker! For smart people who like smart people shit.
Anyway, what’s my point? These were the really unique joints that pushed the artform into new territories.
THE BUTLER* COMIN’!
I been aware of Moor Mother for a while, but this was the first year I really got it. She’s one of the most multi-talented, urgent and accomplished artists working today in the medium of sound. She can kick it on some rapping, on some poetry, some straight up jazz, sound collage, and she can drop a remix of drone metal. If she doesn’t get a Macarthur Genius Grant, what the fuck are those even for?
That Watchmen show ended with Angela Abar galaxybraining Dr Manhattan powers, becoming Kali herself, and Damon Lentilhoof was all, well, I don’t know how to take this story forward, the show’s over. Moor Mother was like, *cocks one eyebrow*.
There were so many hugely ambitious, idiosyncratic, highly personal records this year, you could easily have a list of just those—the rap autofictions, the bildungsrappons. It’s become its own subgenre. Innocent Country 2, Anime Trauma & Divorce, Dump YOD, Gandhi Loves Children: any and all of these are worth your ears. (Plus, the jangly anxiety of Serengeti’s AJAI deserves mention.)
TKO’s Nosebleed takes it for me for its controlled chaos, its sheer audacity, the layers and range it packs in. The two car accidents framing the story caused “ripples from the impact spread out as wide as free jazz concepts.” It’s a portrait of place and time — the Koreatown he grew up in — a jubilant, complex mainlining of Saturday morning cartoons and neighbourhood drama. You can feel the bright, slanting LA sun. You can smell the corn on the cob with parmesan, and the car crash blood and motor oil.
I been big on fka milo since back when he was that young cat who raps about Kierkegaard. He coulda eaten off that forever, but he keeps trying out new things. (I mean, 2020 had perfectly solid, advanced art type shit that wasn’t in my top 20 because it was the same sonically unique stuff they’ve already done—the Shabazz Palaces record was TOO SHABAZZ PALACESY.)
pages works off a Jefferson Park Boys and Kenny Segal beatscape that's looser and funkier than what Ferreira usually pops on, and this after-hours basement boogie woogie vibe gets him freer but no less thoughtful and incisive. It’s good to grow and good to get down. It's the first time I've heard a rapper sound like he's playing off the band, in a jazz sense. Also, rapping about laundry! Laundry as metaphor! Let rap leave no part of life unrapped about.
The Usual Suspects
As good as the records between Marcberg and Marcielago are, to be honest I fuck with Marci’s Collected Loosies & Guest Features: 2010-19 more — he pulls out more stops on other people’s joints. But like Marcielago, this is a solid-state Marci album. (I mean yeah, it has the weird Kool-Keith-gave-me-some-bad-acid-with-BBQ-sauce-stains swerve after track 11, but let’s just forget that happened.)
Roc's progression reminds me of two things. First, the master of condensed writing, Isaac Babel, who shrank novels into three page short stories: I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out.
The other was a book on Mondrian I saw once. He started out painting normal-ass churches and trees. Then he started taking things out — elements, colors. Curves. Shapes. How much could you take out and still have the essence of the thing? Eventually he got down to just black lines, red, yellow and blue blocks.
It’s fascinating to go back to the beginning, the UN days but even Marcberg, and see how Roc’s continually compressed his lyrics — he started out writing sentences, cohesive verses, but keeps stripping out what’s unnecessary, to the point where he goes well below haiku to drop five-syllable poems like:
…and that’s it. That’s all he needs to say. It’s pure essence of pimp. Mondrianberg.
I’ve spoken on Ka so many times now, that I’ve said mostly all I got to say. He doesn’t have a discography, he has a bibliography. Cain is a callback/victory lap to Grief and another finely wrought, carefully rendered work. There are lots of rappers who can paint bleak, grey portraits, but none have Ka’s quiet strength and humanity. Also it samples John Huston’s crazy 1960s Bible movie and The Robe, what could be better.
Cain and Abel? Jealous brothers. That’s the story. That’s the record. That’s Stringer and Avon too. It’s the oldest story. The deed of Cain was multiplied a thousand times. The apple wasn’t the original sin. It was that brother-on-brother murder.
I think a lot about Abraham on Mount Moriah, ready to sacrifice his son. What kind of God asks for this? What kind of God lets us stumble through Sodom and Gomorrah? What kind of strength to you need to rise up to that?
When Ka started theming his albums — chess, samurai, Greek tragic myth — the Old Testament was an obvious endpoint. The book of original sin, the exodus, Jacob and Esau. Power. Respect. Juice. How far will you go to get it? Thus sayeth the Lord.
Of the Griselda triumvirate, Conway had the best year. Westside Gunn’s joints were workmanlike product but instantly forgettable; Benny turned in one of the year’s many ‘major talent makes a stab at mainstream record’ — Black Thought and Nas did this too — sparkly and shiny like spilled aspartame and tasting about the same.
There’s a good amount of the classic Machine — “Raw Oysters” alone is another masterclass in his ice grill, thousand yard stare repertoire, but King To A God and Wicked swap out Daringer’s smoked out Buffalo north winds for squelchier beats which highlight his heaviness.
That weight was always there. When he says, ‘Look what I became,’ it puts the hook in me every time. Every. Single. Time. It’s Grendel. It’s the Hulk. It’s the Judge from Blood Meridian. It’s that dude in 30 Days of Night who shoots up vampire blood and punches his fist straight through the boss vampire’s head. God don’t make mistakes, see — I’m ‘bout to have Paul robbing Peter to pay me.
Because you slept.
You may remember odd nosdam from such films as cLOUDDEAD, Anticon and his 20 years’ worth of instrumentals which I’ve sprinkled on probably every other mixtape on this site since 2007. You may remember Tokyo Cigar from 2009’s underground rap duo Black Tobacco, if you’re me and have been saying ‘I wonder what Tokyo Cigar from 2009’s Black Tobacco is up to.’ (His then-partner in crime, Iceberg Theory, put out a gang of good work this year too.)
This joint is one of those alchemical miracles where one rapper and one producer exponentially amplify each other’s talents to create a chain reaction that just keeps on blowing up. It’s an off-kilter boom bap (a bam boop), hard in the paint record—don’t let the pedigree throw you off. You could slap on External Magnetic after Ultramagnetics and it would flow like Bruce Lee’s water.
I think a lot about two essential qualities in hip hop: voice, and character. The actual timbre and tones, of a rapper’s voice for me is the third leg of flow and writing. Take a cat like Guilty Simpson—just a great, rich voice. Guru, Rakim are gods behind this. For me, Jay vs. Nas was never going to be a serious question behind Nas’ brandy-and-blunts pitch.
Character is harder to define. There’s a kind of—not exactly suspension of disbelief (in the outlandish braggadocio of what rappers, by definition, say), but buying into their created character, who they posit they are. It’s like, take Bruce Willis: is he a tough guy? No, he’s some barback from New Jersey, but something he does, or some quality he has, convinces us he’s this badass jumping out of buildings, running from explosions type of guy. Redman is a classic character rapper.
So these next two cats I dig from the voice and character angles.
Co-signed by every chiropractor in your area, General Back Pain’s got both the voice and the character—a laid back drawl, but also ready to throw down. The down-low flow makes it easy to miss what a good writer he is. He’s got a good ear for beats, kills it on all the guest verses he pops up on, and his Home Team crew’s been putting out a stream of quality all year. Plus, he’s called GENERAL BACK PAIN, for Christ’s sake—I admit it. I checked him behind the name alone.
I came on to this cat early in the year, and would’ve put 2019’s Yenaldooshi on as a last year pick if I’d heard it earlier. I like the Norf Norf Canadian Griselda thing he does. He also has a good ear for beats, with both Finn and regular collaborator Futurewave hooking it up nice. The character aspect comes in strong here. He’s got this vibe of that dude with the pet duck from The Wire, if he wised up, or of Christopher from The Sopranos, if he didn’t keep fucking up. Check the kid out.
Turn of the century was a golden era for beat tapes and instrumental producers, and Left Handed Straw was a ripe apple in that cornucopia. Twenty years later, exhale01 is not just a masterclass of a sample-based record. You’re listening to a cat with honed skills enjoy the hell out of making some jubilant, funky and crafted beats.
Rest of the Best
Wrecking Crew - The Complete Wreck
Part of what makes rap so unique and unprecedented is its reinterpretation, inter-referentiality, and re-interpolation. The only things that are similar are Shakespeare, where for centuries the same plays are re-presented but recontextualized; the setting or genders or timestamp or just sets and costumes are always different, but the lyrics are the same. The other one is comic books, where hundreds of writers and artists have taken the same characters and re-interpreted them, looked at new facets of who they are, added and erased adventures and backstory. Batman can be a goofball with a rocket car, a fascist, a tortured orphan; Spider-man can be a Black teenager, apparently a pig, a washed up middle-aged man, a tycoon, a clone; the X-men are a metaphor for teenage hormones; for LGTBQ people; for refugees, etc.
I forget where I was going with this.
It was something about how the Wrecking Crew put out an entire Disney+ slate, all-the-MCU-movies level of output and quality control this year.
Remember when the Juice Crew and the Flavor Unit and Native Tongues all hopped on each others’ albums? These cats are bringing that back. And they all got superpowers. Flaming eyeball, laserface, rockfist, cosmic eyeball, technotronic bionic arm powers. It’s tempting to start action-figuring them up with counterparts, but Castro and PremRock are cooler than Falcon and Winter Soldier, and if Zilla is Moon Knight doesn’t Moon Knight look like Batman on crack? And is Alaska Home Depot Dr. Octopus? Who’s Small Pro, Dr. Strange? Yeah, forget it.
But DAMN you could not really choose between these records. ShrapKnel is maaayyyyyyybe the best. But Raheem’s Lament, Cargo Cults, Small Pro’s Selected Instros, Midnight Sons, Bluu Edwards, Rowhouse Whispers — these are all just freestyle combat, tag-team body-rocking, rappity-rap rapping-ass records.
So was this year their Endgame? Nah, it was more like their Start…game. WOW, that’s shockingly stupid.
Uh…hmmm. I got nothing else. Dammit. Go listen to some Wrecking Crew.
There are only a handful of classic compilation rap records—Lyricist Lounge, Soundbombing II—and even fewer classic one-producer compilation records. To me, the high water mark is DJ Muggs’ Soul Assassins Vol 1, when he was at the height of his powers and roped in the 1999 best of the best for mortal combat. (Prince Among Thieves is not a Top 5 compilation album because it’s a Top 1 concept album.)
Preservation’s been the best kept secret among producers, the knife-in-the-boot silent secret weapon. I mean, he produced Days With Dr Yen Lo, which is probably my favorite Ka record and definitely a top 3 for the last decade record. And on this, he draws heavy from a unique well of Hong Kong digging for the best comp we’ve had in years.
I mean, woods! Mach! Marci! Ka! Tree! Nickelus F! Quelle! Navy Blue! It’s every underground heavyweight in the game today, and the beats are some of his best work yet.
Look peoples, I was born* a Public Enemy fan, and I’ll die a Public Enemy fan. Work with it.
The ‘actual’ PE record on Def Jam, What You Gonna Do When There’s Another Long-Ass Public Enemy Album Title In The Form Of A Rhetorical Question, was…fine. But this Enemy Radio joint just fucking goes. Nobody whips tighter, banging slammers better than Mr Chuck D. He hasn’t lost a second off his time and still brings that Black steel for the current hour of chaos.
*in a rap sense
Is There Something Wrong With Your Dishwasher?
is what somebody said when they came over and I was playing one of these records. The instrumental stuff I like is industrial enlightenment. It crushes derelict buildings but also takes you to the White Room, that place on the edge of consciousness between waking and sleep, where the other worlds are. It’s dead city radio broadcasting lower frequencies from tomorrow’s apocalypse. Is there a German word that combines brutalist with turntablist? Brütürntablistsche? But when I recently took a two-dozen-album dive into drone metal, what I was looking for was that exact moment at 1:50 on ‘What Is Lost’ where God’s face moves over the surface of the whirlwind.
Anyway, that’s the shit I like. These aren’t no beat tapes. They’re beating your ass with an iron pipe tapes.
I FEEL ALL RIGHT
This album got me through high school, and this year its 50th anniversary re-issue got me through quarantine. This is not old man classic rock radio bullshit. This is one of the grimest, sludgiest, illest, skankiest, bangingest records of all time. It’s the bridge between Link Wray and the Doors and punk rock and Sonic Youth. It’s got something red smeared on its mouth, could be blood, could be lipstick. It’s rolling around in broken glass. It will make you break all the things.
The re-issue takes the complete studio sessions for what’s a 7 song, 36 minute album and turns it into almost 8 hours, with every take they recorded, plus the superb deleted cut ‘Lost In The Future.’ (OK fine, the actual 2020 re-issue is a 1,970 copy super-duper vinyl boxset for rich rock nerds like Henry Rollins. What’s on Spotify is the 2005 studio sessions re-issue. But the rediscovered Live At Goose Lake did come out this year.)
I listened to it straight through for ten days running—like almost every waking moment. All eight hours. For ten days. I listened to it, according to computers, 57 times this year total. (To be fair, a bunch of times I hadda throw it on during long quarantine hikes as respite from slogging through the audiobook of To The Lighthouse, because it would be like, “Mr. Ramsay was thinking ‘can you believe this motherfucker asking for another plate of soup!!! What the hell, dude!’ and Mrs. Ramsay was eyeballing him all, ‘don’t you do it dude! Don’t you say a fucking word!’” and I’d be all, I can’t even with this hundred year old modernist classic bullshit, I need some Stooges Big Manson Family Energy, and I need it right. The fuck. Now.)
I couldn’t get enough of it, the power was wearing off like a drug, so I even had to see what all nine takes of ‘1970’ sounded like if you played them at once. It turns into such a firestorm shitshow of noise it still hasn’t been DMCA’d.
So ordinarily I’d stick to a rap record that came out this year, but this year hit different. I am deck of cards years old. This album is a half century old. But I FEEL ALL RIGHT. I FEEL ALL RIGHT. I FEEL ALL RIGHT. *howls in Iggy Pop*
Thanks for playing everyone! Tune in next year for another episode of What Is He Even Talking About, Jesus, Just Tell Us The List.