2020 was a year of challenges: a pandemic, racial reckoning, protests, and isolation. But, it was also a year of response to those challenges. Music, as it always is, was there through it all — there to reflect but also to push for change and growth. The best projects of 2020 pushed boundaries musically and socially. Some even reinvented the construct of crafting an album during times of quarantined isolation. And all of the year’s best projects helped define what 2020 ultimately was — a year of coming to terms with our realities; a year of overcoming. This list is built of projects that urged the music world, and the world at large to adjust. These projects reflected on the Black genius that serves as foundational for all modern music, pushed boundaries of stylistic possibility for a post-genre world, spoke to the particular challenges we faced in 2020, and ultimately, were timeless. They are the best projects of 2020.
Trinidad James | Black Filter
It’s been eight years since Trinidad James dropped debut smash hit, All Gold Everything. And though his name has emerged time and again in reprises of its original cut, in features across singles and projects big and small, in further releases of his own, and in his role hosting Complex Magazine’s Full Size Run, it’s Trinidad’s current run — one that began with the release of 2019 single, Playli$t and culminates with the release of Black Filter — that has once and for all pulled his limelight status away from the fate emblazoned upon him by his initial golden stardom.
Brian Brown | Journey
Brian Brown is a picture of range, community, and collaboration, and Journey is his dissertation on it all. From the moment the low-fidelity keystrokes open Come on In, there’s something familiar about its sound. A lighthearted hook concerned with closing the door so as not to let flies in; a quick homage to Brown’s chopped and screwed predecessors and contemporaries; a flow and draw as inescapable as it is addictive, lines up a sound equal parts Cilvia Demo, Bigtyme Way Slow’d & Tap’t, and Hustle & Flow Terrance Howard. It’s raw. It’s honest. It’s Southern. It’s Tennessee.
Yaeji | What We Drew
Sensory immersion has always been the result, if not the underlying goal of Yaeji. The producer, whose textures float over everything from house to trap to hip-hop, is here with her largest and likewise rawest exploration to date. WHAT WE DREW sources from the same root duality and bilingual foundation of her past work, offering her not only a musically, but also a thoughtfully differentiated sphere. Yet, even considering her foundations, something about the mixtape at large feels altogether more complete, less meandering, and ultimately refined in comparison with her groundwork to this point.
Clairmont The Second | It’s Not How It Sounds
Clairmont The Second has, for years, walked an uncurated, unpredictable path through the grey areas of hip-hop experimentalism. With each subsequent release, he explores a new wave not only for himself, but a wave yet to be ridden by anyone at any point in music’s history. To the tune of an old school arcade bleed the simplistic, introductory chords of Clairmont The Second’s newest project. Minimal keystrokes, a light-hearted synth progression, and bouncy videogame samples. But, It’s Not How It Sounds.
Play Nice | Home Buddies
When at the beginning of March — at the beginning of all of this madness in which we now find ourselves enveloped on the day-to-day — a little known collective with a simple message made some stirrings in the experimental soul-adjacent underground, the world couldn’t have known where it would go. From the early days of that unmistakable, irreplicable aesthetic, Play Nice pushed forward with unpredictable, unapologetic confidence. But all along, they were doing more than pushing the boundaries of music, how it’s made, and how it’s shared. They were letting the world do the same.
Aminé | Limbo
From a rapper who was at first typecast by the hilarity and fun-loving nature of his debut hit; from a rapper who subsequently went on a lyrical tear, reaffirming his place as more than a hip-pop one-hit wonder; from a rapper who has since 2016 been on the tip of hip-hop’s tongue at large, comes the amalgamation of it all. As it stands, Aminé is at least in the conversation for most creatively influential hip-hop artist alive if by no other measure than the word unique and what it means to a modern musical scene in constant search for the next groundbreaking, experimental sound.
Yours Truly, Jai | Monarch
Out from the creative sphere of Nashville’s hip-hop centric underground have recently emerged myriad artists bringing something new to an overarching music scene starved of timelessness and deep-rooted creative range. But what is hip-hop without soul? And what is rap without R&B? The answer, when tethered to a Nashville hip-hop underground that we’re lucky to be experiencing and exploring, is most obvious in the necessary, gorgeously unique aesthetic of Your Truly Jai. Monarch feels pulled from so many different keystone moments in R&B’s storied past that it becomes clear that Jai is a conglomerate student of her craft’s history.
Alicia Keys | ALICIA
Amidst despair, Alicia Keys always seems to deliver. ALICIA is a thesis on the influences and the influence of Alicia Keys, stretching from R&B and Neo-Soul, to classic Soul, jazz, and funk, to pop and hip-hop, and all the way to Afrobeats. And yet, it never feels misguided or weak-footed. Instead, tethered by the boundlessness and the timelessness of Alicia Keys and her friends, who represent the past and present of music, ALICIA is an image taken of where music, at the hands of R&B and Alicia Keys specifically exists in 2020, and where she and it are headed moving forward.
Aaron Taylor | ICARUS
It’s the impeccable stitching that details the majesty in Aaron Taylor’s unique brand of Neo-Soul. Rather soul in its most timeless identity, that from the UK veteran is meticulously composed with organic instrumentation, poetic discourse, and vibrant emotion. In so many ways, Aaron Taylor is a mirror reflecting the timelessness of soul’s past: eras that built the pillars for he and his fellow artists to stand on in a scene that knows a musical strength rooted in range. In so many ways, ICARUS blooms as a penultimate bookmark of Aaron Taylor’s long fought advance towards a sound refined, reminiscent, and yet so truly of his own making.
Omar Apollo | Apolonio
With Apolonio, the indefinable anti-pop pop star who’s steadfast becoming one of music’s brightest names as Gen Z realizes their Prince crowned is right in front of them, has evolved and invented more than anyone else in music during the last three-year span. Expectedly rangy, Apolonio — which finds itself in jumbled yet synonymous texture somewhere between a mainstage mixtape and a raw collection EP — is another exploration of the unique and ultimately inexplicable nature that Apollo brings not only to his music, but to music’s future at large.
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