Your Guide to the Top Hip Hop Songs of 2020
So, you may remember that 2020 was a pretty weird year for pretty much everyone on Earth. The world essentially stopped because of the pandemic, but that didn’t mean that the music industry went silent. Sure, seeing your favorite bands on tour wasn’t an option. The summer festivals were all cancelled, and at the time we actually wondered if this would be the end of live music for the foreseeable future.
Things were bleak and getting bleaker, but in times like these, it’s important for people to have a way to escape into art and music, and for many people this was key to surviving a strange and scary time. In this post we’re going to look back at the top hip hop songs of 2020 and try to put them in some kind of context. We’re also going to look at what it takes to top the charts now that music has become a mostly streaming affair. There’s a good chance you’ve heard some of these tracks before, but there’s also a good chance we’ve found some gems from 2020 that you may have missed.
Top Hip Hop Songs of 2020
We’re going to start with a new offering from Jay Electronica, who seemed to disappear there for a bit. Jay’s track The Neverending Story starts with the familiar crackles of a needle dropping on an old record. That sound of the dust sets the tone for a soulful track that mixes different loops in stereo, but the focal point is dead center with Jay’s deliberate rhymes building and building. But then midway through the track everything changes. We fade to silence and then the sound of falling rain before analog synths bring the song back to life. Until Jay’s voice returns, you could be forgiven for thinking that your streaming service glitched out and started playing mid 70s Pink Floyd, but Jay once again grounds the track with lyrics that he intends to be heard clearly. Speed is not the point here. The point is the message, which some listeners might not necessarily agree with (Jay is a devout Muslim), but there is such conviction to the words, that you tend to get lost in the rhythm of the flow.
Lil’ Uzi Vert’s 2020 track Pop
Taking things in a different direction, Lil’ Uzi Vert’s 2020 track Pop answers the question: what are some catchy new hip hop songs? This track mostly relies on a single ominous loop that lays the foundation for Uzi’s motor-mouthed stream of conscious rhyming that seems to jump from topic to topic in a frenetic and playful way. Sure, the track is mostly filled with brags about how much his shoes cost ($1600), but part of the fun is just trying to keep up. There’s an otherworldly quality to the whole thing, and it harkens back to what Lil’ Wayne was up to back in his mixtape days.
Speaking of Weezy, Mahogany was Lil’ Wayne’s big track from 2020, and clearly one of the top hip hop songs of 2020. The track starts with the sound of someone lighting up a blunt before the beat kicks in. And what a beat it is. The first thing that strikes you is how deep and punchy the bass is. Lil’ Wayne is known for being a studio wizard, but the combination of hard panning the beat and compressing it to the point where it feels like it’s giving you a sharp kick in the ears is enough of a reason to get drawn into the song. Likewise, Wayne’s voice is so sharp and clear that it cuts though the swirling backing vocals and fits right in between the beat which gets more complicated as the track goes on. While it seems like so many artists are leaning towards more vintage sounding production, Wayne has gone in a more modern direction by optimizing the beat for a hi-fi experience that makes the whole track feel enormous. And interestingly the track doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a hit. Lil’ Wayne may not be abandoning the mainstream with track like these, but it’s refreshing to see that he isn’t only concerned with making tracks that chart on the Billboard 100.
How does a song make the billboard 100?
Let’s take a break from the top hip hop songs 2020 for a minute and delve into what the Billboard 100 is and how does a song make the Billboard 100. So, first we need to get something unpleasant out of the way. We need to answer a question, and you might not like the answer. Which rap song was the first to top the US charts? Now, you might be thinking it must have been N.W.A, right? Straight Outta Compton was huge when it dropped in 1988. Nope. Well then, it must have been Public Enemy, right? Nope. LL Cool J? Nope. Please don’t tell us it was MC Hammer. Again, nope. The hard truth is that the first rap song to top the US charts was none other than Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice. Let that sink in. So, now that we know which rap song was the first to top the US charts, we can move on hopefully and not mention Vanilla Ice ever again. The Billboard 100 goes way back to the mid 1940s when it was called The Honor Roll of Hits. Not a super catchy name and it sounds more like an academic honor for musicians. In 1955, they changed the name to the Billboard 100, and this was eventually changed to the Billboard Hot 100. In the early days, charting on Billboard was a matter of three factors: How many copies of a record sold in record shops, how many times the record was played by radio DJs, and how many times it was played on jukeboxes—yes, they tracked jukeboxes back in the day. Obviously, this isn’t how the Billboard Hot 100 works now, but it’s not all that different. The three metrics for charting on the Billboard hot 100 currently are: Hot 100 airplay, which means the number of plays a song gets on the 1000 different radio stations that Billboard tracks. The second factor is the number of digital downloads a track gets. And finally-- and most recently—the number of streams from platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. Those numbers get compiled each week, and every Tuesday Billboard puts out their new chart. Take a minute and Google “what was Billboard's number one song the year you turned 21?” If you turned 21 on August 27th, 2012 the number one song was: Whistle by Flo Rida. If you turned 21 on August 27th, 1991 the top song was: Everything I do (I do it for you) the Bryan Adams song from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. If you want to see something truly surprising, Google “how many number 1 hits has Nicki Minaj had? You might be thinking: it’s gotta be at least ten. Sorry, nope one more time. While Nicki has had ten songs chart in the top ten, she’s never had a number one single. Billboard recently made a change to their formula, and they now weigh streaming songs more heavily because of how dominant these services have become. Now, let’s get back to the list.
Top hip hop songs 2020: Part Two
Megan Thee Stallion made a big splash in 2020 with her track Savage ft. Beyoncé, another hi-fi production piece that is an obvious instant hit. Perhaps her boldest track up to this point, the Savage Remix is elevated with perfectly timed vocals from Beyoncé. When it comes to the top hip hop songs of 2020, we have to consider what was happening when these songs were released. The country was looking for a way out of the boredom and fear that we were all living with. This is where rappers like Megan came in because they had the ability to allow us to forget about real life for a few minutes and get lost in something fun and flashy. Savage has all of that going for it, and it packs a lot into a tight four minutes.
Song 33 from Noname
Song 33 from Noname is a frenetic minute long diss track directed squarely at J. Cole who had made the mistake of directing a diss track at Noname during the height of the racial uprising following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The timing was perhaps poorly thought out, and this fact was not lost on Noname who took Cole to task for using his platform for a petty disagreement rather than making a stand for civil justice. The song itself plays out almost like amphetamine fueled beat poetry that moves so fast and so nimbly that you are forced to go back and give it at least a few listens. This is partly because of the content rich lyrics, but on a second listen, you start to take notice of the arrangement of loops and samples that creates the foundation for the rest of the track. A subtle piano line is reminiscent of a Bernard Hermann movie score from the 1970s, and it comes and goes at just the right moments.
JU$T from Run the Jewels Ft. Pharrell Williams and Zack De La Rocha (of Rage Against the Machine)
When it comes to political tracks that knock you off your feet, JU$T from Run the Jewels Ft. Pharrell Williams and Zack De La Rocha (of Rage Against the Machine) is a bold as you can get. The line “look at all these slave masters posing on your dollars” is the gut punch that the country needed in 2020, and it’s what makes this track on of the top hip hop songs of 2020. It’s clear from the repetition and the placement of Killer Mike’s vocals in the mix that this message is meant to hit the listener over the head and boy do they succeed. As the track goes on, that lyrical line is echoed with a fierce growl by Rage Against the Machine singer Zack De La Rocha, and his aggressive tone is exactly what this track needs Further along, Mike raps that “you gotta kill your masters” and “this is probably the line that’ll get me assassinated.” The message is crystal clear, and the video makes it even clearer as it takes direct aim at Donald Trump and other racists who profit off the lives of black people only to turn their backs on them as they’re murdered in the streets. Later in the track Zack takes over and we’re reminded what a powerhouse of political messaging Rage really was and how relevant their music still is. Perhaps more so than ever. JU$T is one of those tracks that can be painful to listen to because of the stark ways that Run the Jewels frames so much of American history and the injustice and violence that is part of our past and present, but you also find yourself wanting to hit replay because it’s just so darn smart.
UUV by Baby 9eno
The opening note of UUV by Baby 9eno is a thunderous bass note played on a grand piano. It’s captured in such perfect reverb that when it comes back, you’re still listening to the first note. When the vocals jump in a few seconds later, the piano suddenly shifts to a schizophrenic and chaotic melody that sounds like it would be more at home on a John Cage album than a hip hop record. Instead of fighting with the piano, the beat fits neatly into the empty spaces and pushes the song forward. Again, we see an artist addressing the elephant in the room of 2020: police violence against black Americans who have done nothing wrong. This is one of the reasons why many of these tracks are among the top hip hop songs of 2020. They know the gravity of which they speak, and they’re saying it as clearly as possible. These are not the mumble-core musings of rappers who want to talk about trivial things. These things need to be said with clarity.
Roaches Don’t Die by Bbymutha
Bbymutha may not be a household name, but her track Roaches Don’t Die is a staggering piece that puts her mature sounding voice front and center. First a little background: Bbymutha is the mother of two sets of twins and a business owner. In addition to that, she’s dropped a dozen Eps in a few years with scant help from the corporate music industry. On this track, her focus is on young black men and how they are raised; a subject of which she is well aware. As you listen, you can’t help but think that this track could only have been written by someone’s mother, and her disdain for her child’s father and how she can teach her own sons to be a better man. What ultimately feels so powerful about this track—beyond the startling lyrics—is the fact that at no point on the track does Bbymutha attempt a hook or anything that would be construed as “catchy.” Instead, we’re treated to her raw, unfiltered, sometimes angry words. It might come off sounding like a rant, but if you give it the attention it deserves, you start to realize that perhaps no one is more entitled to a good, old-fashioned rant.
WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion
Well, it’s impossible to complete this list without one more track. You know what it’s going to be. It’s the track that got almost as much attention as COVID in 2020. WAP. The collaboration between Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion has been called many things: Explicit, vulgar, nasty, and catchy. If you were to Google “what are some catchy rap songs?” it’s possible that WAP would top that list. At once filthy and unavoidable, there’s something to be said for a piece of pop culture that seems ubiquitous in out ever atomized world. But WAP managed to do that. Perhaps it’s a novelty, but there’s something so earnest about the command that both women have over this material.
While it’s not something you’d probably listen to with your parents, there’s a level of empowerment that you can’t really deny about this track, and if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable, then it’s probably working. But seriously, do not listen to this track with your parents.
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