Evan Dale // Dec 29, 2020
2020 was tough. It was hard-fought on multiple fronts from the Covid-19 pandemic to the protests surrounding systemic racism and police brutality; from the isolation of quarantine to overbearing crowds. It was a year of challenges and overcoming the challenges; a year of finding new ways to go about what turned into a new normal. It was simply a hard, albeit ultimately necessary reminder that humanity can change, that it can overcome, and that at the hands of art, music, and culture at large, incredible feats of community and creativity are possible even in the face of more adversity than at times feels possible to conquer. Through that lens, 2020 belonged to Nashville, where an underground creative community orbiting the budding hip-hop and neo-soul artistry found there, is redefining what it means to create amongst a modern pop culture scene over-saturated by too many not doing quite enough. In Nashville, the name of the game is authenticity. A mosaic of authentic sounds telling authentic stories true to the tenants of music’s past, but inadhering to the past’s expectation. And from Nashville, and subsequently as a representative of the power of culture at large moving in an authentic direction, nobody did more than Brian Brown.
In a year particularly defined by the power of staying in place and diving deep into wherever that place is, Brian Brown acted as the city’s leader from a cultural point of view. A veteran rapper with an unmistakable draw and an even more obvious fluidity with words, Brown is not only an image of what music coming from Nashville can sound like once one looks past the mirage of its country music reputation, but also a figure in the evolution of hip-hop from Nashville, from Tennessee, and from the hotbed that has always been the South.
It began relatively quiet in comparison to where Brian Brown and the greater Nashville scene are at as 2020 comes to a close. A lot of that has to do with timing in a year like this one. When his album, Journey, came out at the end of January, the world looked a lot different than it now does. The mellow bars, knack for harmony, storytelling ability, and overall warmth that drive the greater aesthetic of Journey, felt more at place. And yet, as the year descended into chaos, reckoning, pain, and a slew of larger questions and uncertainty surrounding morality, mortality, and how they relate to humanity at large, Brown’s Journey evolved alongside the pain. It brims with the kind of with light, relatability, and honesty that is necessary in challenging moments, and can come to soundtrack acts of strength. His music – especially his album – like all of Nashville’s current cloth, is cut from the authenticity that makes that possible. But even with one of the most dynamic, genuine albums of the year, he was just getting started.
The community angle of Nashville’s not-so-underground underground is where it draws its greatest strength. The artists and artistic teams in the city take the traditions of collaboration already so emblazoned on hip-hop’s past, and expand it to the ends of Nashville and further. And at seemingly every one of those collaborations, Brian Brown was there. Ron Obasi’s Sun Tapes, Namir Blade’s Aphelion’s Traveling Circus, Jxdece’s SYA, and Reaux Marquez’s No Decoys are just some of 2020’s most important projects where a Brian Brown feature denoted a heavy-hitting standout rack. A music video for Flava directed by emerging local audiovisual legend, SECK was a must-watch. Another music video – included in our list of Best of the Year – for Runnin featuring Reaux Marquez and directed by Josh Nachoz is a perfect representation of his character and his artistry. A number of further single releases like Car & Driver and OnlyFans continued his prolific rollout, while the cover of VSNR Magazine’s second ever issue cemented his local standing. And last but not least, write-ups and spotlights in much larger publications than this one with from NPR and DJ Booth, to Nashville Scene, Complex, and Pigeons and Planes proved his prowess and his emerging limelight. In Nashville and beyond, Brian Brown was everywhere. On the covers of magazines, on the home pages of respected blogs, on the screen, and in our ears, Brian Brown was everywhere.
And more important than being everywhere, Brian Brown was in Nashville. Not only a city that had a lot of influence in 2020, but the city that legitimately made the most waves in what is next for hip-hop, R&B, and their surrounding cultural spheres, Brian Brown made a bigger splash than anyone else. And he did it his own way. He’s got a raw vocal cut; he’s made a habit of squeezing four extra words into a bar where no one else would dare; his album bleeds of his Southern roots and his homegrown authenticity; his features bring his unavoidable character into his collaborator’s aesthetic; and his presence seems to bring something indefinable to every creative around him. And as that character and that raw imperfectionism relates to honesty and authenticity, Brian Brown is a perfect match for an emerging cultural capital in the most imperfect of years. His music is relatable; his sound is one-of-a-kind, and his underlining arch of creativity is authentically his own – authentically Nashville. And for all of those reasons, and plenty more we didn’t mention, Brian Brown is the 2020 Artist of the Year.
See our Comprehensive List of 2020's Best Artists here: