As December chills have set in and the festive mood has been sapped away by a failing institution, music has continued to be a constant in a whirlwind of a year. 2020 has been a year in which music – minus some notable big hitters not dropping – has seen a plethora of artists fill the void with more releases than we could count. Music has been the remedy in an unforgettably hard year, so we at Nation of Billions are signing out with a small list of our writers’ personal favourites. Rather than a formal list where critics use a criteria to whittle down everything that music gave us this year, we will be giving flowers to two albums a piece, touching on why they were pivotal to our 2020 in hindsight. So without further ado, let’s get into our highlights as the team shares the LP’s that have held us down all 2020. With a range of tastes and opinions, yet only six writers who were kind enough to bless us over the holiday period, there is sure to be something that resonated with everyone in this list.
Wizkid – Made In Lagos
If there’s a conversation taking place about the king (or queen) of Afrobeats, Wizkid is always a contender. But the move towards a more global sound, as well as the changing landscape of Nigerian music, where Wizkid so easily once dominated, proved a little bit difficult. His 2017 US debut Sounds from the Other Side failed to make the expected commercial impact, and his original fans were found wanting with this new experimental sound. But for someone that’s been in and amongst the best of the best, if not the best, for almost ten years, the doubts were beginning to settle in from some.
Made in Lagos dispels all doubts, balancing the formula and seamlessly uniting both fans from home and abroad, in a manner that no doubt, doubly-secures Wiz’s legacy. With the underlying theme of embracing his roots, and an intentionality in production, the album not only met the high expectations of fans, but also met the bar set by himself. The carefully selected features in the likes of Burna Boy, Ella Mai and Damian Marley, all but confirm Wiz’s approach to continue to seamlessly blend together afrobeats, R&B and reggae, an approach that he got so right on this album.
Ore’s standouts: ‘Reckless’, ‘Blessed’, ‘Piece of Me’
Potter Payper – Training Day 3
When Training Day 3, the third instalment in the storied mixtape series from Potter Payper, entered the UK Charts at #3 in September, it signalled somewhat of a mark of change. The streets were well acquainted with Payper, and the two previous mixtapes in the series; but now it seemed as if people on a wider scale were ready to embrace Potter Payper, a Dagenham rapper who has been in and out of prison, and tackling hard-hitting topics like mental health and domestic abuse.
In a scene currently dominated by faster-paced drill music and the image that comes with it, 2020 slowed us down with releases from the likes of Giggs, Nines and of course, Potter. The surface-level purpose of prison is rehabilitative punishment, but it seems as if the music took the primary form of rehab for Potter, with Training Day 3 being written during his most recent prison stint. This project, officially a mixtape, has some of Payper’s best writing in, and explores a concise, sociological look at themes from the streets, packaged up against refined production that includes exploratory samples from the likes of Snoh Aalegra and Ellie Goulding.
Ore’s standouts: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘A6586AM’, ‘Kings Blood’
Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG
It’s not difficult to understand why Bad Bunny was the most streamed artist in the world in 2020; three projects, an enormous following and a daring never-say-die attitude – if ever in doubt he has cemented himself now as a truly international force without ever conforming his true essence. Released in February this year, YHLQMDLG – or ‘Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana’, aptly translating to ‘I do what I want’ – does exactly that. Unwaveringly the Puerto Rican imprints his charisma and magnetism over 20 tracks that stylistically the world may deem ‘Latin Trap’ but feels much more than just that. He blurs the lines of reggaetón, pop and hip-hop on a flawless party record, moving the sound forward through dancefloor-ready bangers whilst paying homage to the genre’s past. ‘Safaera’ – the album’s centrepiece, in its own little ecosystem epitomises exactly what this album is about. A mind-blowing melange of controlled chaos, with beat switches practically every verse, superbly flipped samples and hysterical verses from reggaetón OGs Jowell & Randy. Of all the Urbano stars who have risen to fame over the past few years it’s hard to put Bad Bunny in a box – a quality that makes this record so unique.
Dinesh’s standouts: ‘Safaera’, ‘Ignorantes’, ‘Yo Perreo Sola’
Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, Kamasi Washington – Dinner Party
Amidst all the outrage of this summer’s catastrophic events and subsequent (re)awakening of the public consciousness brought to light by police brutality and racial injustice, you’d be forgiven for letting this one fly under the radar. Around the same time, the world became sadly all too familiar with the names George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among many others, Dinner Party quietly took its seat at the table with a sincerity that moved the conversation beyond the anguish of Lil Baby’s ‘Bigger Picture’ or the war cry of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ – two songs synonymous with protest. Intentionally perhaps, more a symbolic raised fist than a burning down of the Capitol building, Dinner Party puts forth a questioning rhetoric in earnest, not too distant from the collective’s mutual hero Marvin Gaye – whose seminal What’s Going On lamented over the state of the world for Black people at the time.
Although 50 years apart, those questions heralded by the Prince of Soul are still prevalent today, and similarly highlights another side of protest. It addresses racial injustice with a poignant delicacy; outraged but subtle, open but frank. Comprising a globally renowned cast last, Dinner Party ebbs and flows exquisitely, which to a casual listener plays out as a talented quartet jamming out over smooth-as-butter beats, but beneath the surface though, the message remains the same; Black lives have, do and will always matter.
Dinesh’s standouts: ‘Freeze Tag’, ‘First Responders’, ‘The Mighty Tree’
Popcaan – Fixtape
Back in 2012, Popcaan released YiY Change Mixtape, a near 40 track mixtape, marking a new sound in dancehall – and turning Popcaan into a household name in the process. Eight years later, the singer returned to his roots with YiY Change Fixtape (internationally released as FIXTAPE). With his 2019 album Vanquish, his first offering since signing with OVO Sound, not delivering to its true potential, FIXTAPE had a point to prove and as a results, felt like both a throwback to his celebrated and storied past but with a keen eye on what the future might bring.
While Drake gets an obligatory feature on ‘All I Need’, Popcaan looks to celebrate his heritage with link ups from Jamaica’s past (Vybz Kartel), present (Masicka, Tommy Lee) and future (Jada Kingdom, Skillibeng). Fans of Popcaan will see this project as part of his growth and musical journey and his musings on family, love and even the ever prevalent ‘Ms Rona’ show his maturity and introspection throughout. Yes, not all features hit the spot (ahem, French Montana) and there are 1/2 throwaway tracks, overall – Popcaan looked to please both the streets and the critics with his offering, and has looked to do both in abundance.
Nathan’s standouts: ‘Unda Dirt’, ‘Buzz’, ‘My Way’
Unknown T – Rise Above Hate
Coming in 2020, it was unclear whether we would be getting any more musical releases from Unknown T, the East London drill rapper who had blown up the internet in 2018 with his viral hit ‘Homerton B’. However by July, Unknown came through with his debut project, Rise Above Hate, and looked to be testing the boundaries of his own sound with influences of drill, afro swing, grime and rap. Having a standout line up of features including Young T & Bugsey, M Huncho and Young Adz gifting Unknown the platform to play around with genre.
While this can sometimes plays with the overall consistency of the project, it shows confidence and willingness to experiment; a perfect example of this being ‘SS Interlude’, a silky R&B track with a feature from Disturbing London’s Kali Claire. Another point which makes Rise Above Hate a standout from the year is the lyrical capability of Unknown himself – a point which led to his previous viral success. Throughout the project, whether it’s going back to back with AJ Tracey on ‘Leave Dat Trap’ or commanding the beat with KO and V9 on ‘AVEN9ERS’, he shows versatility in his presentation and production of verses. This blended with his experimentation of sounds leads to one exciting debut.
Nathan’s standouts: ‘LV’, ‘Fresh Home’, ‘Avengers’
Lianne La Havas – self-titled
It has been five years since Lianne La Havas exposed her wounds on her last album, Blood, and her recent self-titled album. In an artistic sense, she is the muse and the artist painting a self-portrait on canvas. Her most true-to-self picture yet, Lianne La Havas recounts making music to the standard of the industry, but on this album her journey is organic — free from outside influence. A sentiment echoed over 12 tracks some of which are earmarked with sullen bass guitar play and deep dissections spurned by soul-stirring vocals. Lianne La Havas is a fluid sonic tapping into branches of soul, jazz and early 2000’s R&B inspired by Destiny’s Child. Five years spent in the production process, outside of the music, life experiences and moments drawn on through childhood melodies. Brazilian grooves inspired by the likes of Milton Nascimento and Jaco Pastorius at moments birthed a delicate set of sounds that will lift you off your feet. The result is a digestible record made up of spirited and toned-down songs employing anecdotes that tap into the psyche.
Ray’s standouts: ‘Bittersweet’, ‘Paper Thin’, ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’
emil – ambrosia
In the ranking of great projects to drop this year South London producer emil is a strong contender with his debut project ambrosia. The talented producer’s musical ear proves to be particularly potent on the record which is a nectar that reimagines revered acts rapping their heart out over space-bound productions. emil gathers together an ensemble of artists and orchestrates moments of brilliance matchmaking artists with instrumentals in complementary fashion.
Sunday service is in session on ‘Perfect Peace’, which finds emil pairing jazz and gospel in a holy matrimony. With pure instrumentals — ‘Dream’ and ‘State’ — working beyond the parameters of an interlude, but worthy as solo compositions for the old soul. This extended play houses deft drum patterns, sublime vocals and two-part productions intertwined together in an artful display. The songs featured on ambrosia are like valuable fragments, but once merged together they make for a priceless aural experience.
Ray’s standouts: ‘Own Pace’, ‘BTD’, ‘Ask You’
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
This album came out of the blue, and in all honesty, considering the myth that followed it – I wasn’t expecting much. But, when I played it for the first time, I was completely locked in. Jay Electronica, a worldly and spiritual man, taps another Jay of the same ilk for support through the albums 10-track duration. Together, they weave a dense tapestry of black empowerment tales, heady metaphors and stories of the struggle, with a hint of high-end braggadocios raps in there for good measure. 2020 has been an incredibly challenging year, despite the good things that have come from it. And this album acted as a guide for me throughout. From the March lockdown, to the most recent one – tiers and all. This album is made in the shape of its creator: it is about the journey – not the destination. The written wizardry delivered by two of hip-hop’s highest mages, inspired and challenged me. With each listen, I remembered how far I had come on my own journey. But crucially, how much further I had to go.
This album reminded me that this testing moment, like all moments, is transient. Whenever I lost my bearings in this absolute mazza of a year. In 2020, the fractured state of race relations globally was exposed by the murder of George Floyd. So, A Written Testimony’s musings on revolutionary blackness couldn’t be timelier. Around four years ago, outside one of COVID 19’s victims, Ace Hotel, I met Jay Elect. I asked him when the album was dropping. He laughed and said: “peace be the journey, brother!” – peace in 2020 has been hard to come by, but, A Written Testimony taught me – the only peace that matters, pandemic or no pandemic, is the peace that comes from within.
Damola’s standouts: ‘Shiny Suit Theory’, ‘The Neverending Story’. ‘A.P.I.D.T.A’
J Hus – Big Conspiracy
Everybody knows the second album is the crucial bridge in every artist’s career. It’s the album that determines whether or not the promise shown on the first drop has the legs to go the distance. For J Hus, to so effortlessly breeze through the sophomore curse with flying colours is both amazing – and alarming. The second album is most challenging because some artists try to repeat the tricks that enchanted listeners the first time round. Hus both reinvents his wheel and keeps the direction established on Common Sense. Big Conspiracy is a very mature release with a mix of narratives: revenge riddims, feeling like he doesn’t belong in the Western world, turning up, slow jams, introspective tales. It also continues the theme of Hus’ ability to drop some of the best intro tracks about (he is two for two in this sense). This album also proves J Hus is one of the best collaborators about. Iceé TGM, Koffee, Burna Boy. All perfectly balanced.
I mentioned the ease at which Hus created this album to be alarming. For a guy so young, to be so world-weary and paranoid, to craft the perspectives he does, it isn’t easy. But the PTSD that’s evident in his lyricism and storytelling is just the tip of the iceberg. Many are suffering from the same afflictions. The difference is, Hus fearlessly tells his story. That balance of bravado and vulnerability is what has enabled Hus to develop his craft. Make no mistake: J Hus is a proper artist. This album in its shape reminds me a bit of one of Hus’ idols, 50 Cent. Namely his sophomore drop The Massacre. That album doesn’t have the same culture-shifting impact as GRODT, and Big Conspiracy may not have the same impact as Common Sense, whose songs are now intertwined with the new Black-British experience. But, Big Conspiracy, like The Massacre, represents a powerful, but quiet growth. The kind of growth that legends are built on.
Damola’s standouts: ‘Deeper Than Rap’, ‘Play’. ‘Helicopter’
Ojerime – B4 I Breakdown
In an industry that does it’s best to pretend that R&B doesn’t exist on this tiny ‘island’, I think of the narrative that you don’t know what’s in front of you until it smacks you in the face. The most profound music of our time often comes from honing in on painful experience – hence was South London songstress Ojerime’s desire to address her fans in this intimate showing. Titled B4 I Breakdown, Ojerime illustrates her vulnerabilities that were accentuated by her breakdown in April 2019 – and over a soundscape that encompasses trip hop, R&B, neo-soul and funk with a 90’s inspired finesse that she has carved a lane in for herself.
Released just a few days shy of the first lockdown, a lot of the themes she touches on – depression, loneliness, longing – felt like she foresaw the mental state of many and really honed in on these themes while getting even more personal with her pen. Whether giving us dark neo-soul vibes on ‘Halfcrazy’, asking her companion to pass the joint on ‘Give It Up 2 Me’ or giving subtle nods to some of the R&B she grew up on ‘SWV (This Ain’t Easy), Ojerime shines no matter where the production (courtesy of Mansur Brown, Kway, Big J and IAMNOBODI) takes her. Consistency is the game the fang artist + label owner is playing, and with projects like this, no one can deny the presence of R&B in the UK.
Sam’s standouts: ‘Whiskey Demo’, ‘Give It Up 2 Me’, ‘Halfcrazy’
Scribz Riley – Wish Me Luck
Following great reception to his debut single ‘East Side’ which was released in April, award-winning songwriter and producer Scribz Riley took the step to breakout as an artist in his own right following acclaimed work with a slew of artists including H.E.R. and Cardi B. Wish Me Luck is a 10-track statement of intent as he dives into the deep end of artistry, entirely self-produced (with the exception of Pearl Lion’s co-production on ‘East Side’) as he displays adept range with vocals and rapping performances. An outstanding quality displayed on this project is Scribz’ ability to bend to the sensibilities of his collaborators – whether upping the tempo with esteemed driller Headie One (‘Impress Me’), coaxing a sombre yet stellar feature from ATLien 6LACK (‘Dim My Light’) or raising the vibrations with newcomers KWN (pronounced K1) and JADA (‘Introduce Myself’).
Wish Me Luck is the work of an artist that is forward thinking and confident in his product, simply putting his best foot forward by letting the music speak for itself. The album’s production shows range in a musical kaleidoscope that shows strong hues from R&B, rap, house and dance, a palette that ensures there is something for everyone with this listen. Clocking in at exactly 29 minutes, listeners will yearn for more. But expect to hear much more from one of the UK’s finest breakout stars.
Sam’s standouts: ‘Outta Your Way’, ‘Introduce Myself’, ‘I Lied (Part 1)’