The 25 Must-Listen Projects & Albums of 2020 (so far...)
Evan Dale // July 3, 2020
Jan. 8, HXRY, PIECE OF MIND
After years of production behind the scenes, Chicago's HXRY expanded his creative output to include each and every step of the process to release a complete project. With production and instrumental skills refined from years of work, and a one-of-a-kind auditory aesthetic born of suppressing and channeling his knack for songwriting, vocalism, and raps through the same span, he’s emerged over the past year as one of the most unique, influential forces in underground R&B.
Jan. 10, Mick Jenkins, The Circus
Every Mick Jenkins work has been strongest in its lyrical and thematic makeup, never failing to evoke emotion and provoke thought with each line. And The Circus is more lyrical, meaningful, evocative, and provocative than what most other rappers are able to do with much longer projects. It's another necessary addition to a canon that has quietly led hip-hop in a truthful and hard-hitting direction for more than a half-decade.
Jan. 27, Rome Fortune, FREEk
For an artist whose presence was high-key prolific during the early 2010’s, beautiful pimp, hip-hop chemist, and one of the most understated forces of influence on the modern scene, Rome Fortune has been relatively quiet since 2018. But, the man’s a FREEk, not just in terms of his prolificity. Sonically, aesthetically, thematically, experimentally, and outright sexually, his new album explores his uncanny knack at doing everything from a unique angle.
Jan. 31, Brian Brown, Journey
Brian Brown is a picture of range, community, & collaboration, and his new project, Journey is his dissertation on it all. From the moment the low-fidelity keystrokes open Come on In, there’s something – some things – familiar about its sound. It’s Brian Brown & it’s Nashville. And it’s already a key element to a new chapter of Southern hip-hop. The foundation has always been there. Journey pays homage to what got him here and where he’s going next.
Feb. 7, Brent Faiyaz, Fuck The World
When it comes to the future of R&B, Brent Faiyaz may very well bear the strongest grip on its experimental directionality. Like most of his compatriots, the impossibly young vocalist is an old soul. But, somewhere between the high-waisted slacks and the face tattoos, he and his music founded in decades of soul and R&B music’s past, are also a figure and a force of what the future may come to sound and look like. Case & Point: Fuck The World.
Feb. 7, Raveena, Moonstone
The collection of songs are taken from the original recording sessions towards her 2019 debut album Lucid, but as expressed on her Instagram, ‘felt like their own little project,’ Undoubtedly, the four track EP is drawn akin by the quiet strength and softness we expect from Raveena, and separate themselves from the rest of Lucid by way of their beachy guitar strums and overarching sense of atmospheric exploration that’s more classically psychedelic.
Feb 14, Fetty Wap, Trap & B
End to end as a comprehensive listen through Trap & B, the project is Fetty’s most adjacent to his debut. The beats are laced with explosive bass and bubbly electronic production. The melodies are unapologetically emotional. The lyricism is violently romantic, but with a rougher tone. Raps melt seamlessly into Trap & B’s sung direction, blending into a sound neither established hip-hop or R&B, but simply riding Fetty Wap’s more melodic edge.
Feb 26, K. Forest, Memory Springs
His newest project is a 5-track EP exploring the latest progressions in the juxtaposing stylistic lanes he continues maneuvering and making his own. To call him a rapper would be short-sided. To call him an R&B vocalist would be, too. Instead he’s something of both, but through his boundless range and seamless changing of lanes, he emerges as something else altogether only really describable as K. Forest. The figure of post-genre modernism, he is his own grey area.
Feb. 29, teddybear, Bread & Butterflies
It’s easy to romanticize the rarity of February 29th. With it comes an air of spectral emotion edging from Orwellian darkness to Lewis Caroll whimsicality where existence itself is marginalized into being only once every four years.For those 1460 days until the next leap year, when searching for that inexpressible emotion attached to the peculiarity of February 29th, wallowing in the subtle emptiness of its passing, there’s Bread & Butterflies.
Mar. 3, Brandon Banks, STATIC
Over the course of a short couple years, Brandon Banks has developed a vibrant collection of tracks and two EP’s that continue to define a sound washed in Polaroid tones and emotional opacity. The Inglewood singer and songwriter is fond of acoustic layers and honest lyricism, and his latest EP, STATIC, is an exploration first and foremost of those two lanes. The project has an eternally laid-back identity and understated exploration of top shelf vocals and instrumentation shrined in simplicity.
Mar. 27, Ari Lennox, Remix EP
Shea Butter Baby marked 2019, and really put a stamp on the 2010’s at large, as one of the more inventive and sensually-dominant epochs in R&B, Neo-Soul, and hip-hop history. It also introduced Ari Lennox as the global phenomenon she was always meant to be. Following its release and the two-part drop of Dreamville’s game-changing Revenge of the Dreamers lll, she continues flooding the airwaves with a three-track cut of remixed hits from Shea Butter Baby.
Mar. 27, Giveon, TAKE TIME
TAKE TIME doesn’t sound like other debuts. Perhaps it’s the overarchingly different emotional boundaries belayed by a singer with a lower register that leave it a short half-hour of emotionally mature, spring-time ballads. But more likely is the simple fact that Giveon is a refined, practiced vocalist as seamlessly able to craft storyline as he is able to evoke a painfully wide swath of emotion. As an artist, he’s already a veteran of his craft, whether or not his canon speaks to it.
April 2, Yaeji, What We Drew
For the Korean American DJ, residing in Brooklyn with near roots in Seoul, refining a sound embedded in such a diverse composite is no small feat. If nothing else, it requires the invention of a new aesthetic certainly sourced on pillars of the past, but different as a merged whole. WHAT WE DREW is a master class on just the sound that Yaeji has been working towards for years. But understanding it is really reliant on an understanding of her road.
April 3, Thundercat, It Is What It Is
The roots of that transcendence are the deepest roots of It Is What It Is. If the project is purely an explosion of Thundercat’s artistry, then there is no genre label that could restrain its wide-ranging flames. From track to track, consistencies align between Thundercat’s bass, the charm of his inconspicuous vocalism, and a full band laying tracks for the project’s smooth subtlety to ride. Yet, from track to track, inconsistencies themselves provide It Is What It Is with deeper flavor profiles.
April 17, dvsn, A Muse in Her Feelings
In a sonic dimension framed by synths bubbling out from a Nintendo-64 water map and vocals descending from a brothel of Heaven’s Red-Light District, thrives the always harmonious, yet eternally in conflict soundscape of future R&B duo, dvsn. They thrive on juxtaposition. They have since the release of their 2016 debut, September 5th. And with A Muse In Her Feelings, their reach has grown.
April 21, Smino, She Already Decided
No one in hip-hop’s upper ranks is more suited to the release of the mixtape by its traditional sense than the hip-hop artist whose sound, roots, inspirations, and era no one can quite pinpoint. Smino is a master of the unpredictable and blasé realm where mixtapes used to shine. For Smino, whose sound is rooted nowhere but the fantastical world of wordplay of his own making, She Already Decided is as mixtape as mixtapes have ever been.
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May 1, Mahalia, Isolation Tapes
From the emerging queen of UK Neo-Soul comes a much needed EP, Isolation Tapes, which boasts an aesthetic so reminiscent of humanity’s shared sorrow, yet which will continue to shine as a blissful example of Mahalia’s one-of-a-kind reinvention of soul music for a generation without labels. The three-track EP is simple in its texture and its thematic exploration. And undoubtedly, that simplicity is a reflection of minimalist nature that isolation has imparted on all of our lives.
May 6, Dot Demo, Burn One, Tap in, Zone Out
The project – like its predecessors – is no under-thought mixtape. On the contrary, it’s a mastered cut of a master cutting his rap contemporaries from the ceiling they thought they stood on. Because when Dot Demo is around, few can manage to even stand on their own lyrical feet, drowning in the effortless wordplay of Dot Demo’s dictionary, even if no foul play was intended.
May 8, JORDAN Xx, Surfing: Highs N Lows
Though JORDAN Xx is young and seemingly new to at least this strand of titular releases, he embodies the kind of veteran uniqueness, refinement, and embrace of his own aesthetic that these days seems to only come from the hip-hop youth of Nashville – and maybe Tennessee at large. Surfing: Highs N Lows is as open and telling as a debut gets. An emotional mosaic by an impossibly talented musician.
May 22, Kota the Friend, Everything
EVERYTHING is no different than its predecessors in the fact that it’s an aesthetically differentiated collection of poems delineating a new chapter for the Brooklyn rapper. It’s different than Kota’s prior work in almost every other way. EVERYTHING’s authenticity and signatures in balance with risks taken and experimentation opened the door for Kota to step out of his defined sound even further with future work, while still offering his grassroots, organic audience a taste of what they fell in love with in the first place.
May 22, Marvin Dolo, Midtown Maneuvers
What has been perhaps most unique about the Marvin Dolo experience is that he’s been able not only to continue growing as an artist, but that he’s been able to continue expanding his already immense stylistic range. Through eight project releases, he has bounced back and forth between the most experimental walls of hip-hop and his own uniquely enigmatic brand of R&B. with Midtown Maneuvers, headheres closely to the melodic romanticism in his catalogue.
May 22, Duñe & Crayon, Hundred Fifty Roses
From its broadest viewpoint, Hundred Fifty Roses breathes a poignant air. Call it soulful melancholy; call it the French perspective, but whatever it is, Duñe and Crayon use it to drive vivid, relatable emotion into their aesthetic. And around that axis, the rest of their sound experiments wildly, never settling in a sonic space, but never removed from the subtlety of fine-tuned emotionality.
May 29, Freddie Gibbs, Alfredo
Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist are almost an unfair pairing. The duo are hyper-complimentary, as equal antitheses in a zero-sum balance game for the hip-hop spectrum. Both are not old-school, but timeless by the very nature of their sounds. One – a lyric-first, flow-second traditionalist, staunch in his adherence to rap’s underlying meaning: rhythm and poetry; the other – a classic producer of sample-ridden, minimalist instrumentals that grant a stage only to artists that really know how to rap.
June 12, Sy Ari Da Kid, A Toxic Heartbreak
There’s no shame in crying during A Toxic Heartbreak.Like some futurist blending of Akon and PARTYNEXTDOOR, A Toxic Heartbreak’s wavy vocalism is not defined by the auto-tuned or the not, but by those seamless moments where Sy Ari floats from one to the other, perpetually navigating a grey area more refined, yet edgy than anything he or any other vocalist has been able to do before or is doing right now.
June 12, Naeem, Startisha
Without research, it would seem Naeem is a product of the post-genre, transcendentalism riddled grey area of musical inexactitude. With Startisha, he meanders; hip-hop, rap, and spoken word; neo-soul and R&B; indie and folk; and a wide-ranging swatch of electronica. But really, those are just his building blocks. Those stylistic adherences mark a life hellbent on slicing into music’s outer reaches and blowing up those fine incisions with crossroads of what he’s heard & done himself elsewhere.