The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down nearly everything in the world, with one exception: the music industry. During a time when people cannot physically go to work, artists can still record music from their homes, and in the case of rap, the results have been excellent.
Over the past year, rap fans have been blessed with a wide variety of music.
From mainstream superstars like Kid Cudi and Drake reasserting their dominance, to underground kings like Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine finally getting their well-deserved time in the spotlight, hip-hop hasn’t taken a break during the pandemic.
With the world slowly on its way back to a new normal, here are the best rap albums from quarantine thus far:
Run the Jewels
In the fourth installment of the legendary “Run the Jewels” series, Killer Mike and El-P make their most important record to date. Like the duo’s previous three albums, “RTJ4” mixes elements of thought-provoking social commentary with lyrical mastery and alternative hip-hop excellence. The difference on “RTJ4” is the subject matter is more urgent and the sounds push even more boundaries.
Killer Mike and El-P take stands against racist cops, a corrupt prison system and the economic construct of American society more directly than ever. The album plays like two sci-fi outlaws riding through dystopian American cities during the peak of the George Floyd protests. In a compact 11 tracks, El-P and Killer Mike manage to deliver the most important album of 2020.
The energy of tracks like “ooh la la” and “out of sight” combined with the dire and cynical social commentary of “JU$T” and “walking in the snow” make “RTJ4” a one-of-a-kind roller coaster ride only the best duo in hip-hop could pull off. By offering their trademark comedic value and discussing the corruption of American society, El-P and Killer Mike deliver with another masterpiece.
- Anthony DeCicco
Pray for Paris
Since 2018, at least one project has dropped out of Buffalo every year that has made heads turn. It doesn’t always set the world on fire, but it always reminds the world of one thing: Buffalo rap is slowly coming for the crown.
With his third studio album, Westside Gunn dropped one of the best coke-rap albums in a year filled with many great coke-rap albums.
Featuring one of the most eye-catching album covers in recent memory — a renaissance style painting of a man with a sword and chains, holding up a severed head — “Pray for Paris” is armed to the teeth with features, ranging from rising stars such as Freddie Gibbs to fellow Buffalonians Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine to veterans like Wale and Joey Badass. Inspired by a Virgil Abloh Off-White fashion show, Gunn fuses beats from a barrage of producers with some of his flashiest, yet thoughtful, raps to boot, creating a project no other rapper could create, not even Gunn’s fellow Buffalo rappers.
- Alex Falter
From King to a GOD
Conway the Machine
Like almost every Griselda release, “From King to a GOD” feels like an important moment for Conway the Machine.
After countless mixtapes and collaborative projects, Conway finally shines on his own solo studio album. The production on “From King to a GOD” feels more grand than any of his previous efforts, but Conway still sticks to his grimey underground roots. With features from hip-hop OGs like Method Man and Havoc along with modern-day lyrical juggernauts like Freddie Gibbs and fellow Griselda members Benny the Butcher and Westside Gunn, Conway outperforms the stiff competition.
In his most complete and self-reflective record to date, the Buffalo native solidifies his title as one of the greatest rappers alive. Conway attacks issues of police brutality, the loss of loved ones and struggles with street life and hustle with ease. Tracks like “Lemon,” “Front Lines” and “Spurs 3” highlight his lyrical prowess and ability to dominate a track and command a listener’s attention. On “From King to a GOD,'' Conway’s lyrical sword is as sharp as ever, and the rapper experiments with both new sounds and subject matter.
- Anthony DeCicco
Fresh off the heels of his 2019 collaboration, “Bandana,” with legendary producer Madlib, Freddie Gibbs arrived just in time last summer to give fans a lyrical sensation with calm production that enters the ears smoother than butter.
Don’t be fooled by producer The Alchemist’s lo-fi beats; Benny is just as aggressive as ever, enlisting the help of hip-hop superstars like Rick Ross and Tyler, the Creator and Buffalo rappers Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine. The album features an interpolation of Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” in which Freddie beautifully spits “the revolution is the genocide / look, your execution will be televised” before morphing the rhyme into something clever: “Don’t cross me like Isiah, that s--t be ill-advised / dark horse, rap black sheep, they got me vilified.”
Rhymes like this paired with The Alchemist’s relaxing beats push “Alfredo” to a height greater than the sum of its parts, creating a project that can be enjoyed on any occasion.
- Alex Falter
Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon
Few artists had Pop Smoke’s potential. Within one year of emerging onto the scene, he was already making a name for himself as one of the hottest rappers out of NYC. With club hits like “Dior” and “Welcome to the Party” complemented by more thoughtful tracks like “PTSD,” Pop showcased a range that would have brought him to the heights of 2Pac and 50 Cent. Sadly, he was gunned down in Los Angeles in February of last year.
While many posthumous albums fail, mentor 50 Cent refused to let any of Pop’s talent go to waste, choosing to be the executive producer behind the project. 50 Cent mixed the limited finished content he had to make a project no one could have predicted. Much of the credit still goes to Pop, however, since the quality of the unfinished music still had the energy and catchy lyricism that made him such a star.
Backed with the talent of artists like Quavo, Roddy Rich and 50 himself, “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon” is a treat for the ears, ruling the summer with party anthems including “For the Night” and “The Woo.” Fans even got to glimpse Pop’s softer side, with an array of love songs like “What You Know Bout Love” and “Something Special.” Nothing can replace the albums the world may have been blessed with if he was still alive, but it’s safe to say Pop Smoke’s legacy was more than preserved on this soon-to-be iconic rap album.
- Alex Falter
Burden of Proof
Benny the Butcher
Just like the rest of his Griselda label mates and group members, Benny the Butcher produced a phenomenal body of work in 2020.
Executively produced by Los Angeles beatmaker Hit-Boy, “Burden of Proof” is Benny’s most polished project and finds the normally aggressive MC diving deeper into his emotional side. Through countless tracks of self-reflection, Benny realizes his place in not only the rap game, but in life.
The lush production of “Where Would I Go,” “One Way Flight” and “Famous” give Benny the opportunity to discover who he is outside of the street life. Gliding over every beat thrown his way, Benny’s bars are somehow boisterous and compelling. The lighter sounds prove his diversity and also give the project a more accessible feel.
Accompanied by big names like Lil Wayne, Big Sean, Rick Ross, Freddie Gibbs and Griselda brethren Conway and Westside Gunn, Benny is surrounded by an A-list supporting cast, which makes his big moment even more impactful.
- Anthony DeCicco
Man on the Moon III: The Chosen
After 10 years, Kid Cudi finally gave fans the follow-up to his beloved “Man on the Moon” series, and he did not disappoint.
Divided into four chapters, “Man on the Moon III: The Chosen” continues the saga of Cudi’s lonely stoner character, but he is no longer the immature, clueless kid he once was. Instead, Cudi is all grown up.
Cudi fills the project with numerous interesting samples, including the movies “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Stand By Me” on “She Knows This” and “Elsie’s Baby Boy (flashback),” respectively. The latter song even connects Cudi with his rock roots, as it features a nearly identical chord progression to The Animal’s 1964 classic “House of the Rising Sun.”
The album secures only a few — effective — features, including from Skepta, Trippie Redd, Phoebe Bridgers and, posthumously, from Pop Smoke on “Show Out.” In a much deeper and mature state than he’s ever been, Cudi does not necessarily surpass his oldest projects, but he still shows he’s not out of ideas over a decade into his career.
- Alex Falter
Seven Times Down Eight Times Up
For over 20 years, Detroit rapper Elzhi has been one of the most consistent artists in underground hip-hop. The 42-year-old’s third full-length studio album, “Seven Times Down Eight Times Up,” continues his streak of amazing solo projects.
Produced entirely by underground producer and Griselda affiliate JR Swiftz, Elzhi raps over traditional ‘90s-style boom-bap beats and remains in his lyrical prime. While the Detroit MC chooses not to avoid his underground roots, the music still sounds extremely fresh.
Tracks like “Smoke & Mirrors,” “EarlyBird Nightowl” and standout track “Light One Write One” find Elzhi over smooth soulful production while “THUGGed Out Zombies” and “Master Class” sound like they could be gritty cuts on a Griselda album. The beauty of “Seven Times Down Eight Times Up” lies in the dedication to the storytelling and soundscape of ‘90s hip-hop.
Elzhi doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way on his latest album, but he doesn’t have to. “Seven Times Down Eight Times Up” showcases one of hip-hop’s best MC’s (well into his 40’s) still rapping at an elite level and putting together an extremely cohesive project.
- Anthony DeCicco
Memphis rapper Young Dolph spent his entire career waiting to drop “Rich Slave.” After years of perfecting his craft, Dolph released his most refined project yet, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Never one to rely too heavily on features, Dolph chooses quantity over quality, receiving assists only from G Herbo, Megan Thee Stallion and fellow Memphis-rapper and cousin Key Glock. All three deliver, but Dolph is still the highlight, commanding the attention of listeners through his aggressive persona.
From the album’s opening track, “Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up,” Dolph comes off with a new level of confidence, effortlessly rapping about how far he and his friends have come: “Rich n---a still in the neighborhood store eatin’ cold cuts / Street n---a, b---h, I’m in the Bentley doin’ donuts / Taught myself how to get millions, ain’t nobody show us / Front my young n---a fifty ‘bows, told him, ‘Lil' n---a, grow up.’”
With his career still on a slow, but ever steepening, climb, time will only tell when Dolph releases his next project. But with 24 tracks on the deluxe version of “Rich Slave” and his recently released collaboration with Key Glock, “Dum and Dummer 2,” Dolph has more than enough music to hold his fans over for a little while.
- Alex Falter
Spirit World Field Guide
Since 1997, underground titan Aesop Rock has consistently released some of the most innovative hip-hop music of modern times.
On “Spirit World Field Guide,” the 44-year-old is still pushing the lyrical and sonic boundaries of alternative hip-hop.
With emotions ranging from painfully honest to darkly humorous, “Spirit World Field Guide” is a bass-heavy acid trip through the spiritual ether. Aesop’s flows are amusingly charismatic and his signature voice is a comforting reminder that even listeners’ favorite rappers have the same problems they do.
“Spirit World Field Guide” sounds like the most fun Aesop Rock’s ever had making an album. Even when Aesop is highlighting his anxieties and insecurities, his virtuosic delivery and enchanting production make it a journey the listener keeps returning to.
Tracks like “The Gates,” “Crystal Sword,” “Coveralls” and “Kodokushi” all capture the album’s supernatural presence and adventurous spirit. Aesop’s eccentric delivery and ability to perform lyrical acrobatics over his most engaging beats to date make “Spirit World Field Guide” the perfect album to dive into during quarantine.
- Anthony DeCicco
The arts desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine andSyracuse.com. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.
Alex Falter is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.