You know the drill: The big line is coming up, so the DJ turns down the volume, and the whole crowd yells it. That’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s not what happened in 2020.
Rap music is communal music. Always has been. In its earliest days, rap music was built on block parties and on electricity stolen from streetlights. A whole lot has changed since then, but the essence remains. Rap music will never sound better than it does when you’re with a whole mob of your friends, at a party or in a club or at a festival, all of you shouting along with the lines you’ve heard hundreds of times. 2020 being 2020, that crucial experience has been taken away. Rap music still thrived and resonated this year. A lot of the best rap sounded like a commentary on present conditions, whether or not it was formulated that way. But the experience was different.
This year, the Grammys nominated five different middle-aged rappers for the Best Rap Album award. The youngest nominee was 35, the oldest 47. Worthy and popular music from younger artists was relegated to lesser categories. I objected, and yet I understand. The entire idea of the album has never been less relevant to young and playlist-savvy rap listeners. Many of this year’s biggest and best rap songs didn’t come from albums, or they came from expanded-edition addenda that merely served to challenge the notion of the album. Many of the best long-players did, in fact, come from rappers oldest enough to feel sentimental connections to the format.
For my money, 2020’s best rap albums came from artists of all different ages and from all different corners of the genre map. (Some of the rappers on this list are more than twice as old as other artists on this list.) The best rap albums of 2020 didn’t share a whole lot, but all of them have a purity of vision, a sense of self. Our best rappers are the ones who understand their strengths and know how to play to them. Not all of those strengths involve full-length albums, but we still got some good ones.
This list is entirely personal and subjective, based on my preferences and mine alone. (It doesn’t necessarily overlap with Stereogum’s list of the year’s best albums, though I did help compile that, too.) Plenty of great 2020 rap albums aren’t on this list, so here’s where I’ll make my apologies to 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Sada Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, Open Mike Eagle, Megan Thee Stallion, Armand Hammer, Young Dolph, Jay Electroncia, R.A.P. Ferreira, City Girls, and the two Boldy James albums that aren’t on this list, as well as plenty of others. Making a list of 10 great rap albums is a messy project, but 2020 was a messy year.