As 2020 finally draws to a close, Andy reflects on the music which provided the soundtrack to a dystopian year
2020 has been a year to forget, but one of the few highlights has been the plethora of music released. At a time when their art was more necessary than ever, our favourites used creativity to combat the adverse circumstances and give us all some much needed respite from the chaos around us.
Listening habits changed this year. In the throes of a pandemic, with no prospect of going to a bar or club in sight, I can echo Kano and Ghetts’ sentiment in that my listening also skewed away from club bangers towards music with substance. Artists whose music is more geared towards live performance – such as fun-loving afroswing collective NSG, who dropped their debut mixtape Roots – suffered due to the lack of a real summer and the cancellation of festivals causing their projects to gain less traction than would be expected otherwise.
Reflecting on this year’s releases, it has to be said that it has been yet another disappointing year for US hip-hop. Aside from some exceptions – like the Griselda boys dropping fifty-leven projects, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin unexpectedly linking up with Morgan Freeman to make magic on Savage Mode II, and Detroit 2 marking the long-awaited return of mixtape Big Sean – there was very little to write home about.
In contrast, 2020 has been one of the best years for R&B in recent memory. Perhaps lockdown had me in my feelings but, with the likes of PARTYNEXTDOOR, The Weeknd and Bryson Tiller finally returning with albums, and Jhene Aiko, Kehlani, Teyana Taylor, dvsn, Summer Walker, Masego and more all dropping noteworthy projects, I found myself repeatedly turning to the genre for some escapism from the monotony of the pandemic.
Finally, in a year marred by personal tragedy for so many of us, posthumous albums, such as Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon and Mac Miller’s Circles, deserve a shout out for providing fans with a final capsule of joy from beloved artists taken before their time.
In a disruptive year for the music industry, with no live shows, many of the industry’s heavy hitters, such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Frank Ocean and Rihanna, opted to delay their scheduled (and, in some cases, rumoured) album releases. This decision, presumably with a view to dropping once the world regains a sense of normality and these artists can resume touring, opened the door for lesser known artists, such as Giveon, to gain some long overdue recognition. We can anticipate these artists using 2021 to capitalise on their buzz and, with the more established superstars expected to deliver too, there is plenty to look forward to in the new year!
5. Black Habits | D Smoke
Fresh from winning the inaugural season of Netflix’s hip-hop talent show Rhythm + Flow, which aired in October 2019, Inglewood rapper D Smoke delivered his debut album, Black Habits. Although his triumph in the Netflix series served as Smoke’s introduction to mainstream audiences, the West Coast spitter is by no means a novice in the industry. D Smoke hails from a musical family; he is TDE artist SiR’s older brother and the cousin of R&B singer Tiffany Gouché, with whom he formed a songwriting collective, writing and producing for the likes of Ginuwine, Mary J. Blige and The Pussycat Dolls. Black Habits boasts a slew of high profile features – including Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott and Ari Lennox – which adds a sheen of star quality to the deft lyricism and dense wordplay on display, polishing off a project which is thoroughly deserving of its 2021 Best Rap Album Grammy nomination.
4. A Written Testimony | Jay Electronica
Prior to his decade long vanishing act, Jay Electronica had caught the attention of the rap game with a series of impactful releases showing him to be an elite lyricist. ‘Exhibit C’ was arguably the most notable of these and remains the stuff of legend to some fans. He has since enjoyed near messianic status in hip-hop, whilst keeping fans patiently waiting for his return. With that being said, the cheek of him effectively releasing a collaborative effort with Jay Z, who is widely regarded as the GOAT in hip-hop circles, is quite frankly astonishing. Jay Electronica even admits that, in doing so, he has drawn for the cheat code, rapping on ‘Ezekiel’s Theory’: “My debut album featuring Hov, man this is highway robbery / It’s like I hit the lottery, I busted the piñat-y”. Furthermore, Jay Z absolutely bullies him throughout the project. Jay Electronica probably just about edges it from a pure lyrical standpoint but Jay Z’s delivery is thoroughly more entertaining and captivating. There is no doubt that, of the two rappers, the one who has actually rapped in the last ten years takes centre stage on the project. On his highly anticipated debut album, Jay Electronica doesn’t even rap the first bar, stepping aside to let Hov do the honours. Mr. Electronica, are you not embarazzed?
Anyway, thanks for indulging my rant. Now, to discuss the album itself. With its track-listing originally released in Arabic, its title written in Arabic on the cover, and with Islamic references throughout, spirituality is central to the project. Okayplayer’s Najma Sharif succinctly summarised the album as follows: “If Kanye West’s JESUS IS KING was a gospel rap album, this is a nasheed rap album for the skeptics and aspirational”. Islam has long had an influential relationship with hip-hop: from the emergence of the Five-Percent Nation – a denomination of Islam founded on Black Power/ radicalism in 1964 – as a sub-culture within the hip-hop community; to the Nation of Islam’s preaching of Black militarism, which went on to influence gangster rap. The speech on ‘The Overwhelming Event’ from head of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, which opens A Written Testimony sets the tone for the rest of the project.
Jay Electronica’s first bars on A Written Testimony come in the second verse of ‘Ghost of Soulja Slim’, where he fashions himself and Jay Z as prophetic, proclaiming: “If it come from me and Hov, consider it Qur’an / If it come from any of those, consider it haram”. After more than ten years of radio silence, many had joked that Jay Electronica finally dropping his album would be a sign of the end times. With 2020 starting in such chaotic fashion, you’d be forgiven for thinking the day of reckoning were upon us. The ever-elusive Jay Electronica embraces his persona of rap’s messiah, even spitting on ‘The Neverending Story’, “It’s the day of qiyamah” – i.e. his return marks Judgement Day.
If the album’s intended message were to espouse the doctrines of the Nation of Islam, some would argue that it is disingenuous for Jay Z, a billionaire who raps about his opulent wealth, to be the messenger. However, it could also be argued that this ideological mismatch between the religions of Islam and capitalism is simply reflective of the inherent contradiction which exists between hip-hop’s infatuation with capitalism and the genre’s roots in Black political consciousness. The album is deeply layered and, for the average listener, the lyrical content borders on the esoteric. Despite listening on repeat, I know there are countless references still flying over my head, with no hopes of landing soon. However, even surface listening leads to the verdict that, despite it being made somewhat anti-climactic by Jay Electronica playing second fiddle to Jay Z, A Written Testimony is still an accomplished debut album from one of hip-hop’s most fabled, enigmatic characters.
3. Send Them To Coventry | Pa Salieu
Breakthrough Coventry rapper Pa Salieu has seen a startlingly rapid rise to prominence in 2020. After establishing a slight buzz in 2019 with his feature on Juls’ ‘Like Tu Danz’, he burst on to the scene in earnest in January this year and hasn’t looked back since. His first major success came with high energy single, ‘Frontline’, which perfectly announced the arrival of the Midlands MC. The tune came like a breath of fresh air and is definitely the type to have you remembering exactly where you were and what you were doing when you first heard it. Salieu’s debut mixtape Send Them To Coventry, the title of which means ‘to ostracise someone’, came in November and, with it, Salieu capitalised on his bubbling popularity to deliver a project which firmly places him amongst the artists to keep a close eye on in the coming years.
With his diverse range of flows, Salieu brings a refreshing energy to the scene and a unique sound never before heard in the UK. From the distinctly UK sound of drill on tracks like ‘Informa’, featuring fellow breakout star M1llionz, to the strong West African influence which can be heard on ‘B***K’, Salieu’s sound betrays the myriad musical and cultural inspirations behind an artist who spent much of his childhood in The Gambia. At times, Send Them To Coventry almost sounds like a hybrid of the different styles which can be heard across the Black diaspora. Although many of the tape’s highlights are the up tempo tracks, such as explosive banger ‘My Family’, featuring BackRoad Gee (another exciting newcomer with whom Salieu has palpable chemistry), variety can also be found in the mixtape’s more mellow moments, such as the Mahalia-assisted final track ‘Energy’. Send Them To Coventry is a fitting introduction to one of the most thrilling prospects the UK has seen in recent years.
2. Made in Lagos | Wizkid
Much like Burna Boy’s African Giant in 2019, Made in Lagos, the highly anticipated fourth studio album from Nigerian crooner Wizkid, is flying the flag for African and Nigerian music worldwide in 2020. However, unlike African Giant and much of Wizkid’s earlier discography, this album is almost completely devoid of high energy, danceable hits. Instead, Wizkid takes an altogether smoother direction with this project, which is not too dissimilar in sound to that of SoundMan Vol. 1. Although the feature-heavy EP released under Wizkid’s label Starboy largely flew under the radar when it arrived at the end of 2019, SoundMan Vol.1 succeeded in testing the market reception to Wizkid’s more serene sound.
For those of us who have been fans of the afrobeats superstar since his introduction in 2010, it is a joy to witness Wizkid’s artistic development with this project. Over the course of the decade, Wizkid has matured from popular party starter to bona fide global phenomenon, capable of delivering a mightily impressive and cohesive body of work. Listeners are taken on a melodic journey from album opener ‘Reckless’ through to final tune ‘Grace’, with Wizkid giving grown and sexy vibes throughout. Made in Lagos is well complemented by expertly chosen features which aid the project in exploring the musical influences behind Wizkid’s sound. The reggae influence is present on tracks including ‘True Love’, ‘Smile’ and ‘Blessed’; whilst the Fela-style afrobeat influence can be heard in the album’s production, characterised by a saxophone which can be described as nothing short of perfect. With no skippable tracks and production allowing for seamless transition between tunes, Made in Lagos lends itself to repetition – that is to say, before you know it, you will be reloading this thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good, easy listen from start to finish!
1. Big Conspiracy | J Hus
At the end of 2019, J Hus dropped ‘No Denying’, the second single ahead of the release of his sophomore album. The track begins with a war-like rallying call over frantic strings before a drill-style beat, laden with heavy bass drums, kicks in. During the song’s intro, Hus spits: “I already know I’m a psychic… before you fully rise up, we have to remove the virus”. Momodou Jallow, AKA J Hus, is a man of many names. His aliases include: The Fisherman, The Farda, Juju J, Bouff Daddy, Hustler and Lead Militarian of the Jamba Boys. Who knew that, in 2020, ‘prophet’ would be added to his illustrious list of titles? In Big Conspiracy, J Hus could not have picked a more apt title to describe such a surreal year.
J Hus leads an eventful life and a lot has happened since the 2017 release of his debut album, Common Sense; not least joining Drake on stage at the O2 Arena for a triumphant comeback performance following a short stint in prison in 2019. Drama seems to follow him and even the release of this album wasn’t without its hiccups. With the album leaking in mid-January, J Hus was forced to bring its official release forward without significant prior marketing and even without the Ella Mai featuring ‘One and Only’ (which was added to the album ten days later, upon sample clearance). You have to question whether it was a wise decision to leak the album of a man who goes by Juju J, but whoever the guilty party is, they did nothing to stop the eventual success of the album. Given the circumstances and the fact that J Hus was unable to release any music videos as promotion, the album did remarkably well to still obtain the number one. He simply had to let the music do the talking, and that it did!
J Hus’ music encapsulates the sound of young Black Britain and Big Conspiracy is no exception. The beautiful blend of different cultures which exists in London and beyond is reflected in the various musical influences which can be heard on the album, from drill and rap to afroswing and dancehall. It should come as no surprise that the man who made being ugly his unique selling point has always been brimming with confidence, and this is on display on this project with audacious bars like, “I had a big mama, ten years older than me / Wagwan baby, how the body?” on ‘Cucumber’. However, there is also an additional depth to this album as J Hus briefly addresses more mature subject matter, including racism, self-love and the police on tracks like ‘Helicopter’, ‘Fight for Your Right’, and emotional album closer, ‘Deeper Than Rap’.
It remains to be seen whether this album will go down as a classic like Common Sense but regardless, Big Conspiracy remains a stellar effort from an artist at the peak of his powers.