The Best of 2019 + What To Expect in 2020
I dedicated hours listening to hundreds of albums released last year — from multi-syllabic alt to pop rap ballads, and everything in between. This music of ours has never been more diverse or eclectic.
For the troubled teen, there’s emo rap; for the Tik Tok dancers, there’s a plethora of pulse-pumping beats and what the kids call trap. Influenced by Roc Marciano and empowered by Griselda, drum-less gangster art-rap is everywhere, with Jay Z, Usher and Lebron James hypebeasting.
It’s no longer appropriate to list the top female rappers (if it ever was) — Rapsody, Noname, Leikeli47, Rico Nasty, Doja Cat and Princess Nokia have catapulted to stardom alongside Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
In 2019 we even saw a resurgence of neo-soul, jazz and old-school boom bap rap. Thank you, Jidenna. Thank you, Sampa The Great. Thank you, Skyzoo. Thank you, Duckdown.
Not to mention the international market finally catching on to what I’ve been espousing for years: the genius of African Hip Hop. Modenine’s still the king, but Khaligraph Jones, Sarkodie, M.I Abaga, Cassper Nyovest, Wizkid and Burna Boy are killing it on and outside the continent.
Gene Simmons may be “looking forward to the death” of our music, our culture and our people, but I’ve got a good feeling we’ll be outlasting the washed-up clown.
The albums that made my 2019 top 20 list span sub-genres, but all met certain criteria: cohesiveness from start to finish, repeatability, songwriting, vocal fluidity, lyricism and musical quality. Albums with fewer than 10 songs were not considered.
I’ve also included a few honorable mentions, as well as some specific awards.
The best songs were compiled into a 58-song Spotify playlist.
Send your hate here.
The Top 20 Albums of 2019
The Best of 2019 (Praverb.net), a playlist by Phil Mandelbaum on Spotify
1. Kemba — Gilda
No album this year was as thoughtfully constructed or cohesively and eloquently delivered as Kemba’s Gilda. The music is indisputably beautiful, and the songwriting and lyricism are so high level that most won’t truly overstand.
Gilda is an ode to Kemba’s late mother, and a story of mourning, moving on, and making it in the music business. The 15-song, 42-minute epic feels like looking through a private peephole into the humanity of this powerful — but flawed — young Black American man, as he hands us his heart and soul, divulging on the ups and downs, the insecurities and regrets, the sacrifices and successes.
Formerly known as YC the Cynic, Kemba is finally earning the fanfare he’s long deserved and probably doesn’t really want. From collaborating with the right producers and musicians to simply writing better raps than nearly everyone else, there’s good reason he was called on stage by Kendrick Lamar and featured in Yasiin Bey’s Brooklyn Museum Negus exhibit.
“Alive” feat. Eric Bellinger [prod. by Ivan Jackson]
“Last Year Being Broke” [prod. by Frank Drake]
“What A Day” [prod. by Ivan Jackson & Frank Drake]
2. Rapsody — Eve
Rapsody isn’t only one of the best Hip Hop artists with a vagina, she’s one of the best Hip Hop artists. Period. Her past albums were great, but with Eve the Carolina-born queen of Jamla and rapper’s rapper took it to another level. The 16-track LP is more than an hour long, without an extraneous second — and every song pays tribute to an influential Black woman.
At once a masterful work of art and powerful protest against the oppression of Black women in America, Eve is worth listening to over and over again — and purchasing, so Roc Nation, Live Nation, Universal and the whole damn music industry know what it is.
“Serena” [prod. by Eric G]
“Hatshepsut” feat. Queen Latifah [prod. by Nottz]
“Cleo” [prod. by 9th Wonder]
3. Radamiz — Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes
Radamiz is right: nothing changes if nothing changes — and with his 2019 album he’s ensuring the industry adjusts to him. No release this year feels so utterly New York, that New York Shitty of our youth. Before the gentrification. Before the Disneyification.
Radamiz is rapping for his life, and at 26 he sounds more like a Generation Xer than a Millennial. With Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes, the young rapper with an old soul uses his obsidian-sharp pen to tell the tale of the East Coast urban immigrant with an intensity and wittiness typically reserved for the upper echelon of underground rap paragons. Whether reminiscing about family life, honoring the city streets, or obsessing over his legacy, the nuanced Nuyorican paints evocative pictures over headbanging beats and enticing soundscapes.
“Benzo” feat. Riz Allah [prod. by The Goonie Toons]
“Shadowboxing” feat. DJ Cutbird [prod. by History]
“Stage Fright” [prod. by Budgie Beats & Jonathan MP Williams]
4. L’Orange & Jeremiah Jae — Complicate Your Life with Violence
It’s hard to believe North Carolina producer L’Orange and Chicago emcee Jeremiah Jae crafted the war-themed Complicate Your Life with Violence concept album mostly over email. They say magic’s made when artists collaborate in the studio, but the connection between these two — built across seven or so years — is so strong they could probably send each other song ideas with ESP.
Complicate Your Life with Violence feels like a Spaghetti Western, but with a little more irony than humor and a bit more torment than quirk (“summer camp in asylums, where the boys and girls sing”). Across their sophomore Mello Music Group release, the duo fuses vivid bars and haunting beats to answer “eternal questions with an assassin’s bluntness: when do you fight and when do you flee, what does sanity look like in a sick world [and] how does one retain valor among the corrupt?”
Everyone says they’re “making a movie,” but with this 17-track, 42-minute soundtrack to violent combat and internal conflict, L’Orange and Jeremiah Jae succeed. At once reminiscent and prophetic, and as much parabolic as precise, Complicate Your Life with Violence hits closer to home than most street rap albums.
“Cool Hand” feat. Chester Watson
“My Everything is Bulletpoof”
5. Smif N Wessun — The All
Tek and Steele of Smif N Wessun are East Coast Hip Hop legends; instead of falling off as the game has changed and the crew lost P, they’ve risen to new heights with their seventh studio album — without giving in to what’s hot right now.
Everything Smif N Wessun drops is a classic, and with 12 soulful boom bap tracks produced by 9th Wonder and The Soul Council The All may be their best effort yet. A quarter century after the release of their debut studio album, the Brooklyn duo formerly known as the Cocoa Brovas definitely give their all, delivering what we’ve come to expect: hardcore rap bars and an abundance of street knowledge. Amen.
This is the music I grew up with, and it’s still the music I’d take to the deserted island.
“The Education of Smif N Wessun” [prod. by E.Jones]
“Testify” [prod by Khrysis]
“DreamLand” feat. Raekwon & Heather Victoria [prod. by 9th Wonder]
6. Your Old Droog — Jewelry
Your Old Droog is a master of controversy. He first gained public attention in June 2014 when rumors circulated that his Your Old Droog debut EP was actually secretly recorded by Nas; it wasn’t until early autumn that he finally revealed his true identity, live in concert at Webster Hall in New York City.
The Ukrainian-born, Brooklyn-raised tough Jew rapper also had to write an open letter to Logic after wishing for the other rapper’s death; trashed Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop after a 7 out of 10 album review and regularly shits on rap journalists in general; beefed with comedian Rich Vos over a Jewelry lyric (not really his fault); claimed copyright infringement to have his lyrics removed from Genius; regularly blocks fans on Twitter for complimenting his music; and has been called out for appreciating today’s in-vogue artist Mach Hommy just a little more than he should.
However, “the rap Sacha Baron Cohen” is also a prolific artist, releasing three studio albums in the last part of 2019, and an incredibly creative, quotable lyricist — and the final installment of his three-part end-of-the-decade musical barrage, released in time for Chanukah, feels like the soundtrack to my life in Jew York.
Dudes just mad, they was passed over like Fredo /
Or how I pull up to Passover, with a solid-gold dreidel /
Or the iced-out mezuzah, told my jeweler ‘two tone’ /
Put some extra rocks on it, like a Jewish tombstone
Jew Tang Clan is nothing to fuck with. I might get blocked for this.
“BDE” feat. Mach-Hommy & MF DOOM [prod. by Preservation]
“Jew Tang” feat. Matisyahu [prod. by Quelle Chris]
“Jew Tang Forever (The Reprise)” feat. Matisyahu [prod. by Tha God Fahim]
7. Hus Kingpin — Slime Wave
We asked Hus Kingpin for an interview in 2019, and it still hasn’t happened, but we can’t hold it against him. As The Winners capo, himself, said:
’Cause niggas don’t move like me, there’s not a drop a loyalty /
There’s only ‘yo, yo, yo, can you do more for me?’ /
I birthed you niggas, all y’all rappers got my last name /
And niggas never did nothing yourself
Not only that, he does it the best — at an extraordinary cadence. His output rivals most of his peers, minus the throwaways. His late 2019 collaborative album with Smoovth almost made the top 20 list, too. And, while the Stu Bangas-produced “Sunkist” was a no-brainer as my most-played song of the year, it was hard to limit the Spotify playlist to only three songs off the Slime Wave project.
If karma exists, the Wave Lord will achieve the success he deserves, at the very least for all the alley oops he tosses everyone else.
“Sunkist” [prod. by Stu Bangas]
“Gargoyle Ceremony” feat. Sauce Heist & The Deity [prod. by ChopTheHead]
“Benzoylmethylecgonine” feat. Estee Nack [prod. by Fortes]
8. Koncept — Champagne Konny
I interviewed Champagne Konny for Praverb.net back in 2017, but it feels like yesterday. We’ve stayed in touch since.
When, after releasing one of my favorite rap albums of the 2010s, The Fuel, with fellow Brown Bagger J57, Koncept chose to leave the Brown Bag Allstars, I wasn’t sure he was making the right choice. But any reservations I had were blown to smithereens, watching his international notoriety explode in the last four years of the decade.
A New Yorker like me, the former Fat Beats clerk took off for Asia — and not Japan, or even China — to pursue his dreams. And it worked.
Meanwhile, he’s stayed true to his sound (and aesthetic), with a distinctive voice and an impeccable blend of bravado and humility.
“A lot of motherfuckers want to ball like me… but did they fall like me?”
In stark contrast to the vast majority of artists of all genres, the Koncept you get on record is the Koncept you get in person. He lets you in, through his music, and you can’t help but root for him.
It doesn’t hurt that he can not only rap but write songs, and seems to always pick the right beats as his backdrop.
While Champagne Konny isn’t necessarily better than The Fuel, Koncept’s latest album demonstrates his growth as an artist and as a person — and I never questioned its top 10 placement on this list.
“Watch The Sky Fall 2” feat. Royce da 5'9" [prod. by Wrist]
“Feeling Good” feat. Toine Kruze [prod. by Karma]
“Sheeesh” [prod. by Wrist]
9. Atmosphere — Whenever
Slug just might be the coolest artist in this unforgiving industry. When I asked him to be a part of my World View song “Go!,” he not only agreed, he took the time to reply with constructive criticism about my verse, urging me to reach my potential with another attempt. The verse that starts the song is the second version, in response to his completely unsolicited cheerleading.
The reason I asked Slug to be a part of my 100% for-charity project was not only due to the social consciousness he displays (more on Twitter, even, than in his music) but also because he’s been one of my favorite independent artists since Deep Puddle Dynamics.
With his verse on “Go!,” the Atmosphere frontman didn’t disappoint, and he exceeded expectations in 2019 with his contribution to Wherever, his 13th studio album over his quarter-century career.
If you’re new to the Minneapolis duo known as Atmosphere, Whenever could be your favorite release of the year; the only negative, for a long-time fan, is the familiarity of the content.
Of course, that same familiarity is also what feels so good — along with the stellar production of one of the most underrated beatmakers of all time, Ant.
There is not a single song (except, maybe, “Postal Lady”) that needs to be skipped; in fact, it was a time-consuming challenge choosing only three to feature on the Spotify playlist.
Slug, don’t ever retire. Ant, send me some beats!
“Whenever” feat. Gifted Gab, Murs & Haphduzn
“Lovely” feat. Nikki Jean
“You’re Gonna Go”
10. DJ Criminal & Illogic — A Change In Mantra
Back when I listened to Anticon, Illogic’s Unforseen Shadows also got a lot of spin (literally, by the way). Unfortunately, over the years I lost track of the talented Columbus, Ohio, emcee.
The CD went the way of the eight track, my rap tastes evolved, I listened to more and more jazz, and when I was compiling verified tastemaker playlists for Audiomack I never stumbled upon a single song from the frequent Blueprint collaborator.
At the end of 2019, I dug deep into the treasure trove of rap releases to create this list and re-discovered the critically acclaimed but under-the-radar street poet and battle champ. I’m glad I did. There’s good reason he’s been able to do this for two decades.
A Change In Mantra is reminiscent of Atmosphere, with top-tier production from the relatively unknown DJ Criminal. On “Experience” and throughout the LP, Illogic gives us “a peak behind the curtain” — and his songwriting is matched only by his honesty.
“Be careful of the bridges you’re burning.”
“A Change In Mantra”
11. Add-2 — Jim Crow the Musical
Chicago community activist and artist Add-2’s Jim Crow the Musical is probably the most cohesive project on this list, with a fluid narrative told across the album’s four acts and 19 songs and skits.
Ambrosia For Heads called it “a stunning concept album with a message” — and that’s exactly what it is. The theatrical expose of the Black experience transports you to the Southern Black churches, marching band meets and sit-ins of the Jim Crow era, while poignantly addressing the issues of today’s New Jim Crow society, as eloquently demonstrated by these 10 bars from “Git Your Hand Out My Pocket:”
Start eating and split it when niggas starving wit’ ya /
Study like scholars, I’m still smart as them Harvard niggas /
I make figures for niggas who need father figures /
Who follow niggas who follow niggas who quick to lick a shot /
After taking a shot of liquor, the bottle hollow /
I hear ya holla the hollow hit ya like, damn! /
We lose heads, like the Sleepy Hollow /
Get caught sleeping and your wick is sure to follow /
My uncle like sixty, he still play the lotto /
He told me life is a gamble, that shit his favorite motto
“Homecoming (They Aint Ready)” feat. WdotILL [prod. by Slot-A]
“Git Your Hands Out My Pocket” [prod. by Sirplus]
12. Brother Ali — Secrets & Escapes
I’ve been listening to Brother Ali for 20 years. Probably played “Forest Whitiker” a thousand times from my college dorm room.
While the Rhymesayers rapper’s “Atmosphere brothers brought [him] along,” his “talent versus fame [still] isn’t adding up.” It’s the same old song — the most intelligent and authentic never reach the heights of the ignoramus-influencers.
But that hasn’t stopped me from celebrating Ali’s growth as an artist and human being.
According to the album’s Bandcamp, on Secrets & Escapes he “sat with the mic and spit rhymes as they came to him, without writing or organizing them into songs.” While producer Evidence “smoked a lot of weed, Ali prayed a lot” — and “every time they made something that reminded them of what they’ve become known for, they threw it away and started something new.”
“They Shot Ricky”
13. Little Brother — May the Lord Watch
The reunion of Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte in 2019 felt like a win for the culture — a small victory we could all celebrate in an era of emo and mumbles. Even 9th Wonder’s absence wouldn’t dissuade it us from rejoicing.
As Marcus Moore wrote in a May the Lord Watch watch review for Pitchfork, Little Brother “wasn’t Southern rap the way we were used to hearing it.” The group’s “airy, soul-sampling beats” and “complex flows” drew comparisons to De La and Tribe. Rightfully so.
But then shit happened, as it often does.
9th went on to form Jamla. Pooh and Phonte embraced admirable solo careers, with the latter receiving recognition as the reason we have Drake (no NYT). But the dissolution of LB left a gaping hole in the game, and our hearts.
After numerous stops and starts, rumors and ruminations, there was great anticipation for the return of Little Brother. With May the Lord Watch, a cohesive, mature followup to Leftback almost a decade earlier, they exceeded expectations — earning accolades across the industry, and outside of it.
The marketing and merch matched the album’s awareness, wit, humor and social consciousness, and crowds amassed everywhere the duo played on tour. Happy for them, happy for my brother Chaundon, a longtime LB affiliate, and happy for us.
“Goodmorning Sunshine” [prod. by Focus…]
“Sittin Alone” [prod. by Nottz & Phonte]
14. Skyzoo & Pete Rock — Retropolitan
The perfect title for an album evoking Old New York, Retropolitan from Skyzoo and Pete Rock hits with exactly what you’d expect from this legendary duo: intricate rhyme schemes and honest storytelling, over soul-infused boom bap beats.
On two of the many album standouts, the Brooklyn and Bronx pair “Carry the Tradition,” connecting with other “Eastern Conference All-Stars.”
This is what we all need more of.
“Carry the Tradition” feat. Styles P
“Eastern Conference All-Stars” feat. WestSide Gunn, Conway, Benny & Elzhi
15. Danny Brown — uknowhatimsayin¿
With his distinctive voice and oddball delivery, and his free associative rhymes and post-modern musical choices, Danny builds his own universe on every album.
Speak in code so nobody know the lingo /
Life like a dice game, ain’t no casino /
Street life, Contra, ain’t no cheat code /
Everyday on the line like a free throw
And backed by Q-Tip for uknowhatimsayin¿, Danny pulls it off more easily than ever, proving he doesn’t need hard drugs to make a powerful impact.
“Dirty Laundry” [prod. by Q-Tip]
“Shine” feat. Blood Orange [prod. by Standing on the Corner & Paul White]
16. Open Mike Eagle — The New Negroes (Season 1 Soundtrack)
Open Mike Eagle is not only an ingenious Hip Hop artist, he’s a funny motherfucker — and listeners get the exemplary amalgamation on The New Negroes, the soundtrack to Season 1 of his Comedy Central show with Black comedian Baron Vaughn.
“Woke As Me,” featuring Phonte of Little Brother, is my pick for the most clever, timely track of 2019. And then there’s the equally enticing series theme song, produced by Madlib, and the bizarre, catchy “Eat Your Feelings” featuring Method Man. Other features appropriately include Danny Brown, MF DOOM and Father, not to mention the architect of woke, herself, Lizzo.
While this may not be the best Open Mike Eagle album ever, this is by far and away the most successful TV show soundtrack I’ve ever heard — and good enough to make the top 15 albums of the last year.
“Woke As Me” feat. Phonte [prod. by Bionik]
“Eat Your Feelings” feat. Method Man & Video Dave [prod. by T.K. Kayembe]
17. Marlon Craft — Funhouse Mirror
When a skinny white rapper ends up on Sway in the Morning, and absolutely destroys it, you’re left shaking your head, grinning in awe. Where did this dude come from? And will I ever see him again?
There’s always the fear whenever a new artist raps like Marlon Craft that years of lunchroom, street corner and afterparty freestyle sessions created a monster: a cat who can rap, but can’t write a song.
But, for me at least, there was something different about the Hell’s Kitchen emcee — and it wasn’t that his initials spell MC or that we once lived down the street from each other. There is substance to what he says, even in his radio show showoff sessions.
Marlon Craft has a social consciousness and maturity well beyond his peers, or his years. And, guess what? As we all found out when he dropped the best video of 2019, he can write a song. A brilliant, nuanced anthem of a song.
Nearly two-million plays and about as many major co-signs later, “Gang Shit” is in the Hip Hop history books, and Marlon Craft has a full album worthy of a placement on this top 20 list.
Plus, my second favorite song on the album, “Personal,” represents a monumental divergence from the record that made his famous — and it reminds me of the direction Mac Miller was heading before his untimely death.
Expect big things from the kid who hosted a halal-cart listening party to promote Funhouse Mirror.
“Personal” feat. Ricky Motion & Evan Crommett [prod. by Ricky Motion]
“Gang Shit” [prod. by Kevin Theodore, Alex Silver, Bobby Wesley & Arbus beats]
18. Modenine & Teck-Zilla — Esoteric Mellow
I may be a bit biased, since Modenine and I followed up his feature on my “I Am” song and video with an appearance of my own on Esoteric Mellow, and producer Teck-Zilla provided the backdrop for my most recent solo release aimed at Donald Trump, but the rave reviews from others substantiates my claim that this collab between Mode and Teck is the best full-length from Africa in 2019 and one of the top 20 worldwide.
In Nigeria, and across Africa, Modenine is a legend. Just ask Khaligraph, the Kenyan rapper who killed the entire country on one song, but merely shouted out my brother.
Teck-Zilla, meanwhile, more than holds his own. He’s dropped a ton of projects over the years, both with and without rappers adding assistance.
Esoteric Mellow is a cohesive listen, with expectedly repeat-worthy bars and beats that’ll more than satisfy the average rap ‘fan’ who can’t decipher the message.
I’m honored to be featured on this album, and have no qualms including it on my top 20 list.
“Don’t Move to Me”
“Collage” feat. AWKWORD
19. Awon — Soulapowa
The underrated Awon released a lot of music in 2019, and Soulapowa is my favorite.
I first discovered Awon (and Phoniks) when I was creating verified tastemaker playlists for Audiomack, and I’ve been a fan of his understated, soulful music ever since. (We’ve also discussed working together.)
Without being preachy or pushy, the Brooklyn rapper manages to make profound statements — over beats that match his message.
Not automatically identifiable as a New York emcee, but certainly with an East Coast aesthetic, Awon continues his streak of quality contributions to the broader Hip Hop landscape and Black American experience. I hope in 2020 he gets his due.
“Baldwin” feat. Anti Lilly [prod. by Phoniks]
“Let You Know” [prod. by Phoniks]
20. Donwill — One Word No Space
The album cover to Donwill’s 2019 HiPNOTT debut One Word No Space tells you everything you need to know about the Ohio-born, Brooklyn-based Hip Hop renaissance man. He embodies urban culture (symbolized by the subway), with a global world view and bright disposition (symbolized by the scene outside the train).
In New York, Donwill and his rap group Tanya Morgan are new legends; while his and partner Von Pea’s rap output has slowed somewhat in recent years, it’s not because the artists have lost motivation. Quite the opposite, with both artists releasing solo albums last year and Von Pea producing the entirety of Donwill’s One Word No Space.
Meanwhile, Donwill is a also an active DJ, comedian, musician, podcaster and consultant, who created and co-hosts Shouting at the Screen with Wyatt Cenac; has produced for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Buzzfeed’s Another Round podcast and Netflix’s Strong Black Lead podcast; hosts the Book of Rhymes podcast; and serves as music consultant for Problem Areas on HBO.
Surprising he even finds time to write raps. But he does, and One Word No Space is a thoughtful, forthright adult rap project with more than few songs that deserve multiple listens.
“Phonies” feat. Von Pea
The Top Albums of 2019: Best EP
UFO Fev & DJ J Hart — Emigres
“Flow Thug & Harmony”
“Sunrise” feat. CJ Fly, Red Inf & Zandra Kaye
The Top Albums of 2019: Honorable Mentions
Jim Jones — El Capo (favorite song: “Mama I Made It” feat. Cam’ron [prod. by The Heatmakerz])
Ghostface Killah — Ghostface Killahs (favorite song: “Party Over Here” [prod. by Danny Caiazzo])
Joell Ortiz — Monday (favorite song: “Captain” [prod. by The Lasso])
Smoke DZA & Benny — Statute of Limitations (favorite song: “Smoked & Butchered” feat. Styles P [prod. by Pete Rock])
Sampa the Great — The Return (favorite song: “Final Form” [prod. by Silentjay])
Jidenna — 85 to Africa (favorite song: “Tribe” [prod. by C Gutta & Mike & Keys])
The 2019–2020 AWKWORD Hip Hop Awards
Rapper of the Year
Rapsody (Runner Up)
Producer of the Year
DJ Muggs (Runner Up)
Album of the Year
Kemba — Gilda
Rapsody — Eve (Runner Up)
EP of the Year
UFO Fev & DJ J Hart — Emigres
Smoke DZA & Benny — Statute of Limitations (Runner Up)
Foreign Album of the Year
Modenine & Teck-Zilla — Esoteric Mellow (Nigeria)
Sampa the Great — The Return (Australia/Zambia) (Runner Up)
Song of the Year
Open Mike Eagle — “Woke As Me” feat. Phonte [prod. by Bionik]
Hus Kingpin — “Sunkist” [prod. by Stu Bangas] (Runner Up)
Video of the Year
Marlon Craft — “Gang Shit” [dir. by Nathan R. Smith & John Tashiro]
Verse of the Year
Kemba on “Daemons” by XXXTentacion
Next to Blow
Most Anticipated Album of 2020
Run The Jewels