Step Off! Magazine’s Top 5 Hip-Hop Albums of 2020

With yet another year gone by we want to thank you all again for taking our online reader poll for the top Hip-Hop album of 2020 and for helping us celebrate our forth full year of operation here at Step Off! Magazine. This year reader’s choice award for top album of 2020 goes to Alfredo, with an overwhelming majority of twenty-six percent of readers voting it as their favorite album of 2020. Second place place goes to Thundercat’s It Is What It Is which garnered fourteen point eight percent of the vote. Third place goes to Eminem’s Music to be Murdered To with eleven point one percent. And a fourth place tie between Run the Jewels and The Weekend for RTJ4 and After Hours which both respectively captured seven point four percent of votes. Thank you to all of the readers who took part in our poll, we hope that next year you will all join us again to not only rank the top albums of 2021! Below we have listed a chart showing the reader breakdown of the poll, as well as our very own top Hip-Hop albums of 2020. Happy New Years Step Off! fam, we look forward to seeing you all for another prosperous year in 2021!

5. ) Nas – King’s Disease

The past several years have been interesting for Nas to say the least, while the Queensbridge emcee has been plagued by a series of lackluster releases as of late. From the Kanye West helmed project Nasir back in 2018, and the equally cringey The Lost Tapes II back in 2019 the God Son has suffered misstep after misstep. So when it was announced that Nas would be releasing yet another project this summer, reactions from fans were positive but noticeably subdued. However, given the late summer release in an year filled with album releases delays as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak fans couldn’t be too picky and were happy to receive another entry from who is arguably one of Hip-Hop’s heavey weights. Continuing on in an ongoing trend of working with a singular producer for an entire album, Nas teamed up with Hit-Boy for Kings’ Disease, his tenth studio album. Like all of Nas’ most recent projects, King’s Disease is an extremely short listen listen, clocking it at just a mere thirty-minutes in length. The album is also the second project where Nas has linked up to work with a single producer for the entirety of a single project (not counting 2010’s Distant Relatives with Damian Marely). After many years of radio silence from Nas after the release of Life Is Good in 2012, King’s Disease comes just two years after his last full length release Nasir, and just hardly more than a year after his ill-received compilation The Lost Tapes II. Sadly, while King’s Disease has moments of brilliance, the album as a whole hasn’t done much to disprove the reputation Nas has garnered for having  a sub-par ear for production. Nas treads over typical subject matter he has locked onto in recent years, I.E. reminiscing on years past, reflecting on the ‘ills’ of being wealthy etc. Lyrically and sonically King’s Disease brings relatively little to the table, and while the superfluous features really distract from the album’s overall narrative the album does have the unique distinction of the first Firm reunion in more than twenty years on ‘The Reunion’. However, even that high point of the album with slow droning production leaves much to be desired, and would have been much better served by a more Boom-Bap type beat. That being said, it was a great moment for fans to hear Nas, AZ, Cormega and Foxy Brown on the mic together again in nearly two decades. Particularly for AZ, which marks the first time Nas has collaborated with longtime friend AZ in an official capacity since his 2002 album Aziatic for the track ‘The Essence’. While head and shoulders over missteps like Nasir and Nastradamus, King’s Disease brings little new to the table in terms of content. And while having Hit-Boy along to serve as the album’s sole producer, the album’s inability to maintain a consistent mood does more to take away than take advantage of this element. And although the album doesn’t quite live up to the standard of his past classic works, or hit the emotional heart strings of more contemporary work like that on Life Is Good, the album is probably the best Nas piece of work Nas has released in a very long time. While King’s Diseases is not the mythical release die hard Nas fans have been clamoring for the better half of the past 15 years, the album does have its brief moments of brilliance. And while Nas albums are no longer the event that they used to be, Nas does prove that nearly thirty into his career he can still hold his own in a genre that values youth and discards its elders. With Nas setting a trend of working with singular producers, fans may maintain a glimmer of hope that we might one day see the mythical, long awaited Nas/DJ Premier collaboration album come to fruition which has long been discussed and rumored about for well over a decade. However, only time will tell when or if that album will ever materialize.

4.) Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony

While 2020 was a leaner year than most prior music wise, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic many artists opted to push back release dates and delay the release of many projects. That being said, 2020 did have its share of surprise releases, and perhaps none were more unexpected than Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony. Released on March 13th, literally the same day the nation issued a proclamation declaring a national emergency regarding the novel coronavirus, the New Orleans emcee finally released his first true full-length album. For close to fifteen years fans had long awaited an album that many thought would never materialize. With not so much as a completed mixtape or EP to follow up his initial hype dating back to the Myspace era with the release of g ‘Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)’, Jay Electronica has spent the better part of the last decade sporadically appearing on guest features for a handful of artists. Originally to be called Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) (which has has now been permanently shelved), Jay Electronica’s debut has been plagued by constant delays, setbacks and a myriad of behind the scenes drama, subjecting fans to year of false rumors, hints, and teases. So after all of these years how does Jay Electronica’s debut hold up? Again, it should it should be noted that A Written Testimony is not so much a solo debut from Jay Electronica, but more like a joint album between himself and Jay-Z. Think a underground version of Watch the Throne, replacing the polished production of Kanye West with the more stripped-down, soulful production that has been a hallmark of Jay Electronica’s sound. Clocking in at a slim run time of a mere thirty-nine minutes, the ten-track album is a mixed bag. With the exception of “Shiny Suit Theory” (previously released as single back in 2010) the album was primarily recorded during a forty-day period, from December 2019 to February 2020. A disappointment, seeing how fans had to wait over a decade for what is essentially a joint Jay-Z album that was all recorded in the length of just over a month. The album does offer some elements fans of Jay Electronica will enjoy however. Featuring dusty Lo-Fi beats with minimal percussion, which Jay Electronica seems to be most comfortable. As well as numerous vocals from the honorable minister Louis Farrakhan, 5 percenter knowledge and wisdom, with numerous references to the Nation of Islam. On top of being a rushed project that literally took over a decade to incubate, Sadly, A Written Testimony has the unfair burden of living up to inflated expectations and delivering after a decade-plus long delay. This is only made worse coupled along with the fact that the project is ultimately a joint album between himself and Jay-Z. That being said however, 2020 has been a surreal year, so it only makes sense that fans would be given the surreal experience listening to an album that almost every fan surely thought would never actually see the light of day. While A Written Testimony may not be the album’s had been waiting for, if 2020 has taught us anything it’s to be thankful when things don’t turn out worse than they could have.

3.) Run The Jewels – RTJ4

Back in 2012, when Killer Mike and El-P first collaborated for his critically acclaimed album, R.A.P. Music, few would have guessed that the odd pairing between the Dungeon Family and Company Flow members would be anything more than a novel, one-and-done collaboration between the Atlanta emcee and New York underground producer, let alone the precursor to a storied, long lasting musical legacy. Fast forward nearly a decade later, four critically acclaimed albums, numerous tours and a a performance at Coachella, Run the Jewels went from being and unexpected, chance collaboration between two contrasting emcees and transforming into an explosive, electrifying partnership and undoubtedly one of the most successful and impactful rap duos of the past decade. While not campaigning for Bernie Sanders, Killer Mike has kept busy making music for the duo’s latest release. Serving as a follow-up to 2017’s Run the Jewels 3, RTJ4 continues the duo’s tradition of political, funky, and introspective lyrics paired with the pounding, bombastic soundscapes of El-P. RTJ4 is another unrelenting experience with Killer Mike and El-P trading bars over the hallmark buzzy, electric production of El-P. With eleven tracks and clocking in at just over thirty-eight minutes RTJ4 is the duo’s shortest effort since Run the Jewels 2 back in 2014. Often referred to as protest music of this generation Killer Mike and El-P haven’t lost an ounce of their lyrical potency. Focusing their lyrical rage at targets such as racist cops, systemic poverty, and corporate media; RTJ4 in many ways feels like an album made for 2020 given a year filled with unrest and political turmoil. While the album does focus less explicitly on protest than its predecessor, the evolution of Run the Jewels parallels the moral, social and political revolution of our broader society which in turn is reflected in the anthems of justice, respect and unity. Featuring an all-star cast of guest cameos which include the likes of DJ Premier Greg Nice, 2 Chainz, Pharrell,  Zack de la Rocha, Mavis Staples and Josh Homme; RTJ4 is easily the duo’s most ambitious effort to date. While fourth in a line of series is rarely held in high esteem, RTJ4 is proof that both Killer Mike and El-P have no plans of slowing down and that if anything the group is more focused and hungrier than ever before. It is likely that we will continue to see more of Run the Jewels well into the 2020’s.

2.) Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo

Over the past decade few contemporary emcees have proven themselves to be as talented, or consistent than Freddie Gibbs. Releasing four solo albums, and another four collaborative efforts with several producers, Gary, Indiana emcee has proven himself to possess one of the most voracious work efforts in the entire genre. So it only makes sense that in a year where various artists were pushing back release dates and postponing albums Gibbs’ moved full steam ahead and released his latest collaborative efforts Alfredo with the Alchemist. The album which dropped back in March of 2020, less than a year after the release of Bandana, his second collaboration with producer Madlib in 2019. Freddie Gibbs returned to the mic, accompanied by the Alchemist to deliver a gritty, soulful experience of an album. Released through Gibbs’ own label ESGN and Empire Distribution, the ten track project is a brief but acutely powerful collection of songs which manage to capture the myriad of various thoughts and emotions that have swirled within Gibbs’ head. Clocking in at a brisk thirty-five minutes the album is among one of the shortest of Gibbs’ full-length projects. While Alfredo may be one of Gibbs’ shortest endeavors, the album is one of Gibbs’ most cohesive efforts to date thus far. Only matched by his past several efforts with Madlib. Once again, Gibbs’ proves himself to have an impeccable ear for production, effortlessly spitting over spliced soul loops, movie clips, and menacing production of the Alchemist which perfectly match the gruff vocals of Freddie Gibbs. Featuring the likes of Rick Ross, Benny the Butcher, Tyler the Creator, and Conway the Machine, Gibbs keeps the features down to minimum, and knows how to smartly utilize said guest features to his advantage. Songs such as ‘Something to Rap About’ serve as a perfect example as Gibbs’ uses the staggered cadence of Tyler, the Creator to contrast his own. The album is also among one of Gibbs’ more critically acclaimed works, with  Alfredo even managing to nab a nomination for Best Rap Album at the 2021 Grammy Awards. While the album does just barely squeak past the half hour mark, both Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist manage to deliver a solid effort. Solid lyrics, superb boom bap production, and a decent amount of features Alfredo is not just a solid  project for 2020, it’s an effort that both loyal and casual fans will find replay value in the years to come. 

1.) Thundercat – It Is What It Is

If there is one artist that has shown a consistent dedication to his craft and vision, there is perhaps no better example than Stephen Bruner aka Thundercat. For years the virtuosic bass guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist, and producer has been consistently harnessing critical praise and acclaim with each passing project and collaboration. From working with artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, and Flying Lotus; Thundercat has consistently straddled the line of working various mainstream without having compromised the integrity of his sound. Needless to say, Thundercat’s ascent to mainstream popularity in recent years after collaborating with high profile artists rocketed him into the public sphere after years of quietly working with various groups and artists while building up his own solo catalog on Brainfeeder. Now, after nearly three years of patient waiting from fans Thundercat finally returned in 2020 to deliver his forth feature-length LP, It Is What It Is. Once again released through Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint, It Is What It Is was yet another release that dropped early on in the year. Serving as Thundercat’s fourth full-length studio album and his first since 2017’s Drunk. Both Flying Lotus and Thundercat handled the majority of the album’s production, with Thundercat continuing his signature brand of interstellar cosmic-soul and electro jazz-funk fusion. As well as his layered, spacey, dreamlike vocals, which all return along with the use of vintage synths, keyboards, and of course, Thundercat’s virtuosic lightning fast skillful bass playing skills. The album is easily the South-Central bass guitarist’s most accessible, mainstream release to date. Boasting an eclectic roster of guest stars, the album features the likes of Louis Cole, Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, Childish Gambino, Ty Dolla Sign, Lil B, Kamasi Washington, BadBadNotGood, and Zack Fox who all make various contributions throughout the album’s fifteen tracks. Much like Thundercat’s past work, It Is What It Is continues to blur lines of Soul, Jazz, Funk, and Hip-Hop. All Culminating in a sonic collage of that brings different artists from an array of genres together on one project. Needless to say, It Is What It Is is everything and more one would expect as the next installment in Thundercat’s long line of acclaimed projects and albums. If the album does have a weak spot, it’s mostly due the surplus of featured artists present on the project. And with that being said, only Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B’s features feel out of place. Thundercat’s immense technical skill and astounding musicality displayed on It Is What It Is not only earned him album of the year in our book, it  has earned him the praise and accolades he rightfully deserves. On top of being yet another stellar album in his catalog, It Is What It Is is a testament to Thundercat’s talent as musician and artist. While many artists fear of being forgotten or are constantly chasing the latest trend or craze, Thundercat once again proves that artists can successfully build up strong, loyal bases, while also adding new fans by sticking to what works for them. No matter how strange, different or experimental it may be. His skill and craftsmanship is a clear indicator that the multi-talented virtuoso has no plans of slowing down and that the future is bright with much more to come on the horizon.


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