We are at the midpoint of 2020 and It’s been a crazy, mostly dreadful year. At least the music has been good. Here are the best albums of the year so far.
COVID-19 put the music industry in a chokehold. Live music is mostly dead. You probably won’t be able to go to a concert or festival until 2021. A recession means that fans have less income to spend on merch. (Even while artists have been more creative with their offerings.) And, for the most part, streaming numbers have been down.
So, yeah, the music industry is in the pits. But when it comes strictly to the art of creating music, artists are still thriving. Music has been great this year — and the releases have been as relentless as ever. We have seen A-listers like The Weekend, Drake, and Lil Uzi Vert drop albums. And B-listers like DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion, and Lil Baby become A-listers, releasing their most important pieces of work.
Independent or underground artists were always the ones who were going to be hurt the most by COVID. They are the ones who don’t make enough money through streaming and who have seen their show money dry up. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped them, either, however. In fact, you’re seeing the underground flourish, with a wide range of releases from artists like Freddie Gibbs, Westside Gunn, Che Noir, and R.A.P. Ferreira.
It’s been a crazy, mostly dreadful year. But at least the music has been good. Here are the best albums of the year so far.
Navy Blue — Àdá Irin
“If I could just see you one more time / Would you be there with me?” It’s a question that ends “Ode2MyLove,” Navy Blue’s third to last track on Àdá Irin, but it encapsulates the earnestness that makes his debut album so enjoyable. Since sharing his music on SoundCloud in 2015, Navy Blue has refined his rapping delivery and style, and Àdá Irin shows him at his strongest. The 11 song album is less than 30 minutes but is rich, the rapper offering a coming of age story that finds him poignantly reflecting on his life, his familial roots, and the bonds he has with those closest to him. — Elijah Watson
Boldy James & The Alchemist — The Price of Tea in China
Detroit rapper Boldy James has continuously churned out high-quality, immensely personal rap that has carried him to a secretive elite status. The Price of Tea In China, his collaborative album with legendary producer Alchemist, further positions him as a blunt, mellow, and poisonous storyteller that can go bar-for-bar with nearly anyone in your top five. Alchemist provides him with a pungent collection of post-boom-bap beats with scratches and cuts to explore his relationship with drugs and penchant for slinking through crime scenes, painstakingly describing the ugliness of the streets in vivid detail. — Trey Alston
Lil Baby — My Turn
Lil Baby’s 2020 breakout is a testament to consistent versatility. In the last four years, the 25-year-old has built momentum with a string of unconventional street singles and pop-leaning ballads. My Turn and its deluxe edition have both. The album’s first single, “Woah,” is easily one of the most lyrically dense dance tracks to hit radio. While he sticks to a tried-and-true range melodically, the variety of flows between “Catch the Sun,” “Woah,” “Sum 2 Prove,” “Grace,” and “We Paid” is dizzying. It’d be unfair to expect this run to continue, but, for the moment, very few artists have a stronger claim to the elusive title of Hottest in the Game. — Torry Threadcraft
Jhené Aiko — Chilombo
Recorded as a “jam session” against the beautiful backdrop of Hawaii, Jhené Aiko found inspiration for Chilombo by taking in the island’s natural landscape and deploying the use of traditional singing bowls that gives the album a laid back vibe. While Aiko is the executive producer, long-time collaborators Fisticuffs and Lejkeys produced the entire project. While Jhene beautifully holds the album down with her melancholic vocals and bold vulnerability. On “Lightning and Thunder” John Legend gracefully assists Jhene who pours her heart out. “B.S.,” featuring H.E.R., is a smooth, in-your-face duet of two superstars who are pushing the boundaries of R&B. In the year 2020, Jhene Aiko has released her finest artistic statement to date. With tales of empowered sexual escapades and heartache caused by broken relationships, Chilombo is an unapologetic dose of feminine energy that is sure to be a soundtrack for anyone riding the rollercoaster of relationships. — Rashad Grove
Megan Thee Stallion — Suga
Suga tells a story about yet another Megan Thee Stallion alter ego. The Houston native introduces listeners to her slick-talking, yet emo version of herself “Suga” on the intro “Ain’t Equal.” What follows are eight other tracks displaying her versatile range. On “Savage” she raps about being sweet and nasty at the same time all while defining her womanhood. “Captain Hook” is a high energy track while“B.I.T.C.H.” features the rapper in her proverbial bag. Megan leans deeply into her emotional side on “Stop Playing,” “Crying In The Car,” and “What I Need.” These songs are a bit foreign for her typical sound, but it’s not terrible to hear her step away from braggadocious bars for once. — Robyn Mowatt
Lil Uzi Vert — Eternal Atake
The fact that Lil Uzi Vert took nearly three years between projects and only gained momentum in the meantime is astounding. Furthermore, the fact Eternal Atake met (and exceeded) its lofty expectations deserves even more praise. Uzi’s creative vision shouldn’t be understated. The album is broken into three conceptual sections — Uzi, Orenji, and Baby Pluto — each reflecting different iterations of his own personality. Additionally, he saved the bulk of his stashed collaborations for the deluxe edition, using Atake to show off his singular vision. Every section is solid, but the Orenji segment is the most enthralling by far. The six-track stretch from “I’m Sorry” to “Prices” offers the most complete sample of Uzi’s sound. — TT
Jay Electronica — A Written Testimony
With a scant amount of material released over the 2010s, Jay Electronica seemed to have made his peace with being the greatest “what if” in hip-hop history. Thankfully, he stunned the world with the release of his debut album, A Written Testimony. The project is not carried lyrically by Mr. Electronica alone. He invites a co-pilot, JAY-Z, who appears on nearly ever song on the album. In a battle of the J’s, the two MCs trade bars about the state of American, being unashamedly Black and foreshadowing the social unrest of Black people that have placed historical injustices of America on center stage. — RG
Giveon — TAKE TIME
Giveon’s baritone voice bursting into the mainstream is one of the highlights of 2020. On Take Time, his debut EP, he expresses his innermost musings. His comforting sound is top tier on the wax as he dwells on heart ache, the blissful stages of love, and more. Highlights on this EP include “The World We Created,” “Favorite Mistake,” and “Like I Want You.” Giveon is truly the rose that grew from concrete and we can’t wait to see what’s next from him. — RM
Thundercat — It Is What It Is
Straddling between the astral realm and reality sits Thundercat contemplating his existence on It Is What It Is. Through spots of humor and desolate, the virtuosic bass player tackles grief following the 2018 passing of rapper Mac Miller, even dedicating the album to him. In the midst of his sorrow, Thundercat tapped a number of collaborators for his 2020 album — from former Slave frontman Steve Arrington to fellow California elites Ty Dolla $ign, Lil B, and Steve Lacy. Perhaps the most unexpected appearance was Childish Gambino, who landed on an alternate version of “Black Qualls” after Thundercat frequently sent him tracks prior to the album’s release. — Jaelani Turner-Williams
Knxwledge — 1988
Not unlike his catalog at large, Knxwledge’s new album, 1988, is a long, rewarding scroll that insists you take your time with it. The 22-track follow-up to his 2015 Stones Throw debut is a collection of all the beatmaker’s twisted tendencies: the time-warping micro-chops, the studious sample stitching, the pitch-adjusted acapellas, and the carefully-curated movie excerpts are all accounted for. Where Hud Dreems was jagged in its hemming, 1988 is clean, but no less jolting at times. Where the myriad beat tape series were thematic groupings of tangential Youtube excavations, his latest is sequenced almost as a retrospective on the tapes and loosies that bolstered his come-up. — Zo
dvsn — A Muse in Her Feelings
Singer Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 (dvsn) typically stay in their lane creating emotionally charged songs about sex, relationships, and the fast life. With A Muse In Her Feelings, dvsn’s past sound is flipped directly on its head with the assistance of live instrumentation. The duo also expertly captures the energy they’re known for even as they leave behind their rough, late-night cuts. A Muse In Her Feelings is their most polished release, it proves the effort they’ve been putting in since the release of their cult classic SEPT 5TH has been worth it. — RM
keiyaA — Forever, Ya Girl
keiyaA, the Chicago-bred, New York-based artist, has come into her own as not only a singer but a musician and producer. But it’s the lyrics that make her debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, so resonant: the affirmations from songs like “I want my things!” (“I’m gonna keep burning, so baby roll up!”) or “Negus Poem 1 & 2” (“Who’s supposed to ride or die for me, if not I?”); the self-reflection of “Hvnli” (“Gone for so long / I can barely record my rememory”) and “FWU” (“The storm in me questions whether to chill / Or continue to let rage tether my will to build / Until then, I’d rather feather my quill”). — EW
Kehlani — It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Since her debut mixtape in 2014, Kehlani has seen her whole life play out in public. The good and the bad, from struggles with her mental health to breakups to the death of close friends to the birth of her daughter, Adeya. In 2020, Kehlani is wiser, probably a bit more jaded, which is reflected on her sophomore album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. The album is cool, clear-headed, and guarded — a complete 180 from her optimistic debut, SweetSexySavage. And sort of the perfect album for the socially distanced state we’re in; It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is the best quarantine and chill album of 2020. — Dimas Sanfiorenzo
KA — Descendants of Cain
KA has been the most talented writer in hop-hop for most of the decade. He is vivid, concise, and direct — but he also requires repeated listens. It’s easy to get lost in Ka’s creaky production and spoken-word delivery. And sometimes Ka’s double and triple entendres get buried. Listeners that aren’t careful would say that Descendants of Cain, his 2020 release, doesn’t stray too far from his previous work. But there are little wrinkles that show he is still growing. The production features his trademark cinematic scope with additional unorthodox clinks and squeaks. And we get our first look at tender Ka; on the touching album closer, “I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev),” he writes a song for his mother, wife, and best friend. — DS
Nick Hakim — WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD
Fans of Nick Hakim may cling to traces of the spacious and sophisticated psychedelia that anchored his 2017 breakout, Green Twins (hear “GODS DIRTY WORK” and “SEEING DOUBLE.”) But Hakim’s second studio album, WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD, is its own beast of empath R&B. With a tortured heart on its sleeve and an emotional maturity that’s shamefully rare in any corner of the contemporary music landscape in 2020, the 12-track album unpacks psychic, existential, and ecological terror, letting uncanny vulnerability and direct-as-it-gets intimacy bleed out from fits of panic, pain, and self-checked lonerism. — Zo
$ilkMoney — Attack of the Future Shocked, Flesh Covered, Meatbags of the 85
$ilkMoney, ex-member of the short-lived Divine Council collective, released Attack of the Future Shocked, Flesh Covered, Meatbags of the 85 on May 20th, 2020. George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police five days later. By May 26th, uprisings started in Minneapolis and eventually spread around the country. Numerous rap songs about Floyd and the uprisings have been released since. But none have matched the energy and pure ferocity of $ilkMoney’s release. There hasn’t been album that has spoken to the times like this one. $ilkMoney is blunt, relentless, and hilarious, in a snarling kind of way. The highlight of the album is “Snort Ashwagandha Root Powder” where he declares “who the fuck said ‘end segregation?’/ I’m gonna just say it ‘I hate white people’ but I swear I ain’t racist/Just the way society made me.” — DS
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist — Alfredo
Nearly a decade after the two were reportedly working on The Devil’s Palace, the long-awaited collab between Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist finally arrived. As the name change may suggest, Alfredo is sonically lighter than what you’d expect from these two in 2020. Gibbs squeezes in a breezy Pimp C tribute on “Look at Me.” Tyler, the Creator adds a scene-stealing guest verse on “Something to Rap About.” Don’t get it confused, though. Tracks like “Frank Lucas” and “All Glass” are all on-brand for a Gibbs and Alc partnership. — TT
Chloe x Halle — Ungoldy Hour
Ungodly Hour builds off the foundation that was laid on The Kids Are Alright. The differentiating factor that distinguishes Ungodly Hour from their debut is that Chole x Halle makes the move into adult-ish (pun intended) terrain with their subject matter. The duo even handles production duties on the majority of the tracks exemplifying not only their maturity as women but their evolution as artists. On “Do It,” a collaboration with Scott Storch, their distinctive voices bring the sexy lyrics to life over a snapping track. They embrace themselves on “Forgive Me” announcing that they put away childish things and are on a path of discovering their true selves. — RG
Key! — I Love You, Say it Back
Key! has leveled up from a middle-of-the-pack emo rapper to one of the strongest pop writers of 2020. Ever since 2018’s 777, he’s perfected a less-is-more approach to songwriting that gets melodies stuck in your head just long enough for the lyrics to hit home later. I Love You, Say it Back standout “Boys Don’t Cry” with Bobby Raps is the most notable example of his skillset. At his best, he gracefully toes the line between tongue-in-cheek cheesiness and genuine earnesty.
In the second verse he drops off Billy Madison, TLC, D’Angelo, and Lauryn Hill references. However, one hilarious aside makes the song. He lightheartedly breaks the fourth wall, crooning “I’m trying to be tough for God’s sakes, I’m a rapper!” — TT
Teyana Taylor — The Album
On Teyana Taylor‘s 2020 release, The Album, her smooth vocals are displayed alongside a variety of sounds that appeal to those beyond her core fanbase. The luxurious beat on “Come Back To Me” sounds like it was made for Rick Ross as it perfectly suits his yacht rap vibe. There’s Afro-beat vibes “Killa,” featuring DaVido, and a Caribbean influence on “Bad.” Aside from the strong production, Teyana’s vulnerability and lyricism about love, sex, and Black excellence really stand out. and show her talent for raw emotion that’s felt through her vocals. — Sri Rain Stewart