Best of 2020: A ranked list of the best 20 albums this year
From Icytooicy's 'Sorry I Don't Like Phone Calls' to the seminal 'Made in Lagos'
From Icytooicy's 'Sorry I Don't Like Phone Calls' to the seminal 'Made in Lagos'
This year has been a monumental year for albums from the continent of Africa. Beginning with a disappointing L for Afropop lovers worldwide – who had hedged their bets on Burna Boy to take home the Best World Album Grammy – our faith was renewed throughout this year, thanks to incredible music. From Drill projects putting Kumerica on the map, to Amapiano infecting the continent north of South Africa and beyond, this year has been one of sonic diversity, experimentation and widening global interest. Last year’s ‘Afropop to the World’ international campaign has been successful, and this year, we’re no longer grasping for global attention – we’re sitting pretty at the table.
For many, the trickle-down effect of Wizkid, Davido, Santi, Tiwa Savage and Burna Boy’s US bits over the past few years, has been life-changing, especially for younger artists. Producers too, have enjoyed Afropop’s status as a global mainstay, for example as Telz and London now appear alongside seasoned beatsmiths, Timbaland and P2J, a boast that wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work and mentorship from the big three.
The significance of this year in albums cannot fully be appreciated without mention of the final arrival of Wizkid’s long-awaited ‘Made In Lagos‘. After all new music was put on hold to honour the End SARS movement, it was Wizkid’s ‘Made In Lagos’ that provided us with the first unifying experience of joy and celebration, reminding us that despite the hardship our country bestows upon us daily, we can be, and indeed are, great. With DRB also finally delivering their debut album – first teased as part of their ten-year anniversary in 2018 – this year, peers Davido and Burna Boy, on the other hand, were quick to offer up sequels to their 2019 drops.
Outside of West African pop, the likes of Nasty C, Amaarae and Odunsi (The Engine) showed up to remind us that – once considered ambitious kids challenging the industry – they are now established artists, having paved the way for a newer musicians with extra-mainstream tastes, such as O’Kenneth & Reggie, Icytooicy, and Forevatired – who also released projects this year.
Meanwhile down south musicians were brewing a trend that would grab the continent by its neck, a new sound hybridised from the Jazz, Kwaito, diBacardi and AfroHouse sounds that dominate the South African music market. Dubbed Amapiano, the new production style became the hottest sound on the continent this year, and on his fourth and final album of 2020, South African DJ, Kazba De Small claimed his crown as the King of Amapiano, a bold claim which went uncontested owing to the resounding success of the album.
2020 has been a trying year with innumerable curveballs, but as always, in times of adversity, good music thrives. As our Editor-in-Chief professed in our Special Issue WizMag, Music is the Medicine; these are the top twenty projects that nursed us through the year.
If you’re yet to hear about Ictooicy this year then you’re either new here or haven’t been paying attention. The Lagos-bred rapper has become one of the hardest newcomers in these parts, continuously presenting the soundtrack for our most intimate feelings, with lyrics that admit things many of us feel too vulnerable sharing. With two projects this year, it’s clear that, much like us, Ictooicy has a lot of feelings, and with each new release there’s evident artistic development and growth.
‘Sorry I Don’t Like Phone Calls’, her February offering, is a 7-tracker that runs through the rapper’s state of mind. In a well-rounded glimpse into the workings of her life, Ictooicy shows that it’s possible to wish to be left alone and have all the love in your heart for those closest to you. On standout number “Lights” featuring Kiyo, she sings sombrely, “I hope that you know I do the best that I can” offering explanations as to why she may come off as standoffish and detached. On the project, her pain feels lived in and relatable, with each song presenting a need to find peace within herself – a strong theme this year. IC has had our attention for a while now, however, with the project’s chart-topping success, it’s not hard to see why 2020 was the year people started catching on to the self-proclaimed ‘poet with a flow’.
It is a superfluous task to measure DRB Lasgidi’s cultural impact purely through music. For more than a decade, the collective has quietly revolutionised community building, popular culture, merch curation, and party norm from Lagos to London, all leading to the alté community’s vaunt to global limelight in the late 2010s. While DRB Lasgidi members have all dropped music independently, there has never been a body of work to serve as a reference for the group’s sonic ambitions, with the exception of a number of loose tracks from the years past. 2020 marked the end of that drought with ‘Pioneers’, their swashbuckling debut album. The title itself suggests DRB’s estimation of themselves as leaders and with the album, they provide an integrated vision of what Nigerian pop music can aspire to with a wide diverse range of sounds that doesn’t disrupt the project’s cohesion. “Kasala” a textured pop song featuring Prettyboy D-O, flows effortlessly into “Salty”, a trap blitzkrieg that houses innovative verses from Santi and Maison2500. On “Next Gen” Fresh L raps, “Next gen kings, we the next best thing”, and it falls into sharp focus how incisive they still sound, despite being 10 years in. Long may they reign.
The sombre piano chords that launch Maya Amolo’s debut project ‘Leave Me At the Pregame’ present a good indication of the project’s upcoming emotional tone. The opening is “Puddles”, an anti-love anthem that finds her coming to terms with an uncommitted lover. “Fuck a fairytale, you and I ain’t enough” she sings grimly, shedding her naivety in the project’s first moments. But even while she’s reliving heartbreak, her voice is unmistakably soothing – resigned yet optimistic, with an undeniable sense of acceptance that there’s better coming.
Throughout the EP, Maya Amolo serves up breakup ballads, punctuated by moments of real growth and independence, drawing anyone who listens further into her youthful world. It feels like an old friend, recounting their latest romantic woes on a late night and seeking comfort in the process of sharing their most private thoughts. By the end of the project, she’s found her strength and she triumphantly sings “I’d rather drown than have you as a lifesaver”. Having clawed her way out, Maya Amolo shows us, in careful detail, the path it took her to gain peace and serenity, something we can all agree is needed this year.
‘Wildfire’ is the continued manifestation of Prettyboy D-O’s loud, constant self-prophecy that he’s primed to become an unstoppable force. After making good on the promise of his potentials on his excellent debut album, D-O doubled down on every positive artistic attribute for his latest project drop, culminating in a quick 8-song trip that’s searing and alluring in slightly unequal measure, but altogether instantly striking. Seesawing between growling rap cadences and animated, patois-inflected melodies with greater confidence, D-O’s singular skill-set is even more evident on ‘Wildfire’; it’s an exciting project from an artist nearing the peak of his powers.
South African singer, Simmy delivered an impressive sophomore album, ‘Tugela Fairy (Made of Stars)’ with uplifting messages on love and following your ambition. Just as she did on her debut album, ‘Tugela Fairy (Made of Stars)’ narrates heartfelt stories with poignant lyricism and atmospheric productions that see her blur the lines between AfroHouse, Funk, EDM, R&B, Gospel, and nostalgic references that promote her Zulu culture.
On one of the standout tracks, “My Light” she encourages listeners to follow their dreams with a retelling of the Biblical story of the 3 wise men who followed a star. The song has all the soothing qualities to serve as the perfect soundtrack for the Christmas season. As with all the best musicians from Africa, Simmy scoured the past while recording ‘Tugela Fairy (Made of Stars)’; she samples South African legends, such as Jabu Khanyile, and American disco group, Lipps Inc to create a portal to a world that feels nostalgic, yet new and breathtakingly alive.
There are a few recognisable influences for Skillz 8Figure’s ‘Gangsta Luv’, from the repetitive sting of Wizkid’s “Joro” (“Kolo”), to the solipsism of contemporary R&B (“Gangsta”). Regardless, the magnetic element of the Ghanaian singer’s debut EP is his uncanny ability to spin his innermost, lustful desires and personal reflections into utterly catchy, rewind-worthy bops. With a sole official outing prior to this EP, ‘Gangsta Luv’ is the sort of instantly memorable coming-out party that many new artists dream of, but only few can pull off. In six brief songs, Skillz whisks his listeners into a colourful realm of neo-afropop beats and melodies so sugary, it’s impossible to resist.
A team of eleven players, Forevatired were one of this year’s most promising rising acts, with many ears in the industry glued to the ground in anticipation of their July project, ‘THOSE KIDS NEXT DOOR’. Keen anticipation was followed by continued praise, as the ten tracks introducing the group to their ever-growing audience did not disappoint. Right from its soulful double-sided introductory track, “WEST”, FOREVATIRED kept listeners intrigued and on their toes as they incorporate all their different tastes, styles, moods and creative expression into the twenty-minute tape. They say, “too many cooks spoil the broth,” but when it comes to FOREVATIRED, “there’s strength in numbers,” more aptly describes their output. The collaboration between RUNA, Pablo, Pharaoh, Eti, Sham, Faith, Golddrummachine, INDIGO, Brum3h, Rookie SBK, ROCK!MONSTA on this project elevates their respective offerings, coming together in a versatile yet astoundingly cohesive drop.
Titled ‘THOSE KIDS NEXT DOOR’, the project introduces FOREVATIRED as the cool kids on the block. As kids, they keep their records short, they make references to Pritt Stick glue and infuse Nollywood skits into their music. They are unafraid to make mention of their recreational drug use, nor do they hide their dark times. In a growingly progressive world, ‘THOSE KIDS NEXT DOOR’ captures the attitude of the forward-thinking youth who live by a strict do what you want mantra, as expressed by Rookie on “BLUE” or ROCK!MONSTA’s description of the “MAGIC” of making music. It’s a project that resonates deeply with many of us young creatives, and it does so from their superior sonic pedestal.
Bella Shmurda wasted no time establishing himself as an outstanding Afropop talent when he shared “Vision 2020”, the Olamide-assisted lead single from his debut tape, ‘High Tension’. The song’s success built anticipation for the project, which took us on an immersive and spiritual journey through the same gritty streets that inspired hitmakers like Olamide and Naira Marley. Over the 7-track EP, Shmurda narrates the struggles of life on the streets, where he learned tips for daily survival rather than ‘thrival’.
This EP opened the door to a more appealing Street-Hop universe – a reminder that hope can be found even in the darkest places. It set the singer up for the dominating run he’s enjoying at the end of the year as he’s now a regular feature on radio with bops like “Cash App”.
Tiwa Savage’s peak presented Nigeria with a sensational diva who could really sing as well as make great pop music. All her career, Ms. Savage proved capable at churning hits, in soft medleys (“Ife Wa Gbono”) or party bangers (“Eminado”). With her tinny voice being the bridge between sultry R&B and mainstream pop, Tiwa collected a unique space within the Nigerian music industry.
Until recently, the need to document societal struggles hadn’t found her music, or a lot of her peers’ even. But 2020 was markedly different. The End Sars movement across Nigeria, Black Lives Matter, the growing economic concerns piling on black nations and communities worldwide, as well as the rising phenomenon of women’s abuse across Nigeria, stepping into the booth to record ‘Celia‘, Tiwa Savage had a lot on her mind. She’d also left Mavin Records, owned by longtime business partner and friend Don Jazzy, to join Universal Music Group. Obviously a crucial part of her crossover to the global market, Tiwa Savage, now more than ever, needed a gracious exit from her pop queen phase. She finds that on ‘Celia‘ with its delectable songwriting, warm honeyed beats, bright melodies and flashes of sociopolitical awareness.
Whether it’s the Naira Marley-assisted “Ole” or “Koroba” – where she throws Nigeria’s misogynist culture in its face – Tiwa Savage deftly floats over the mid-tempo percussions. Her skill with featured artists means that she situates her own guests comfortably, delivering slick verse after slick verse but leaving just enough space for the guest. On Speroach-produced “Park Well”, Tiwa’s mellifluous vocals and Davido’s trademark energy, lean on the electric production, hoisted on the warm drums and jazzy horns. On solo effort “Dangerous Love”, she excites with head-bumping flows and an adlib-led hook that has proven irresistible. The album’s closing track “Celia’s Song” gives Fresh Morning vibes, a strong sense of beauty and peace evoked from the ethereal synths and hallelujahs. Here, Tiwa Savage has you where she wants you: vulnerable and beautiful… glorious.
Back in January when I sat with Tems for NATIVE’s Issue 004 cover story, she made abundantly clear that the intention of her music is to help whomever is listening feel and heal their emotions. With her short and sweet debut project, Tems definitely delivered. For black people all over the world, 2020 has been a time of heightened fear –whether it’s a fear of catching or spreading a deadly disease, or fear of your life at the mercy of those who are sworn to protect you. In a year which has forced everything to pause, a year that can be characterised as a frenzy whilst we’re all still being constrained, Tems’ ‘For Broken Ears’ seems like the antidote to all the poison.
With 7 tracks, Tems takes us on a journey through her most troubling emotions, finding healing within the chaos and finally coming out of the other side, intact. Starting off with an assertion of the validity of her feelings on “Interference”, the project’s strongest track, “Free Mind” sees her finding that peace she’s after, a theme which runs through each following track on the project right to the closing, “The Key”. Wearing many hats as producer, songwriter and vocalist on ‘For Broken Ears’, there’s a real sense of Tems’ giving her whole self to us through this music, and this gives what we’re listening to more credence as the soundtrack to our lives and lived reality. Tems’ most valuable currency is expressing her raw emotion, and this is what makes ‘For Broken Ears’ one of the best projects to come out of this year.
We were all still adjusting to the self-isolating rules of the lockdown when Omah Lay shared his debut project, ‘Get Layd’, back in May. His mix of emotionally piercing lyrics and compelling Afropop melodies were just what the doctor ordered for the gloomy period we collectively experienced. All five tracks gestured at a world of love and pain, where he described different romantic scenarios with vivid and intricate songwriting.
Though he initially started his music career as a producer, Omah Lay opted to handle all the vocal responsibilities on the tape, and only produced one track, “Bad Influence” which showed off his range. The fanfare for ‘Get Layd’ has sustained the whole year, granting him access to emerge as one of the strongest contenders for breakout artists of the year.
From his debut as a full-fledged artist in 2016, it was evident that Odunsi (The Engine) was a force to be reckoned with. His 2016 project, ‘Time of Our Lives,’ elucidated an artist daring to stand out from the pack as he dished out a unique spin of bright, bouncy Afropop. In 2018, he went darker, releasing his debut, full-length studio album, ‘rare.’, which saw him marrying his ’80s and ’90s R&B influences with a dark, Pop-tinged sonic palette. On ‘Everything You Heard Is True’, however, Odunsi embraces the darkness. Earmarked by hazy, psychedelic production, ‘EYHIT’ finds Odunsi evoking equal parts love-drunk melancholy and cynical machismo. The 7-track project comes across as an arrival of sorts, brimming with music that feels like one long, psychedelic trip.
What’s most intriguing (and rather refreshing) about the project is Odunsi’s seemingly newfound confidence. Known for his unorthodox fashion and sonic choices, “The Boy From Nigeria That They Hate To Love” has often been met with ridicule from “critics” and naysayers. On ‘EYHIT’, however, he addresses this bunch – for the first time ever – without saying anything at all. As the title suggests, Odunsi no longer wishes to be understood: “It’s just a combination of everything anyone’s ever felt about me, everything anyone wants to believe, because at the end of the day, it’s their perspective and I can’t battle someone’s views,” he explained in an interview with NATIVE earlier in the year. He’s at the point where he’s comfortable in his authenticity enough to explore new soundscapes, as he does with the project. Laced with bouncy 808s and sinister trap melodies, ‘EYHIT’ is a stunning body of work illustrating the inner workings of an artist who is at peace with his true self; Odunsi is finally free.
Amapiano producers tend to disregard the notion of increasingly short attention spans; songs run well over the 5-minute mark, and full-length projects could go fo hours. Even by these precedents, Kabza De Small’s ‘I Am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust’ is wildly indulgent, a sprawling odyssey that just falls shy of three-and-a-half hours. To call that run-time a risk would be understating how much of an undertaking it is to keep listeners engaged for the entirety of the album, and not only does he pull it off, Kabza makes a grand statement. Split into two sides, ‘IAMTKOA’ experiments, dazzles, and thrills, backing up his titular claim and, of broader consequence, shoring up the legitimacy of Amapiano as a rangy SA House subgenre, one that’s as creatively complex as it is viscerally affecting.
On his first major-label debut ‘Zulu Man with Some Power’, Nasty C sets out to fill gargantuan shoes. On the album opener “King Shit”, he wastes no time in laying claim to his kingly status, addressing himself as a king amongst his contemporaries. In this new role, he’s able to converse with God on shrooms, gift diamonds to his inner circle, and fly state to state, despite coming from Durban city. Make no mistake, Hip-h=Hop/Rap is here to stay in Africa and Nasty C is one of the genre’s widely-known ambassadors.
The rapper isn’t too preoccupied with sticking to rigid themes so much as he’s concerned with listing off the perks his grand lifestyle now affords him. The songs on ‘ZMWSP’ are teeming with self-confidence, and Nasty C gets through most of the project by relying on his on-demand cockiness and his deeply bruising raps. Even at moments where he’s a bit more detached, resigning the raps for a softer flow on numbers such as “Sad Boys” and “Ababulali”, he’s still as cocksure as ever, reminding everyone that he deserves the accolades despite being this young in the game.
Olamide is a facilitator. In a glaring way, ‘Carpe Diem’ is a statement from a veteran who has the mindset of a freshly minted artist – it’s clear that Olamide has hit the reset button on his accomplished career, and this new album has renewed his wholehearted love for music. In a recent interview with P.prime, he revealed that what we know today as ‘Carpe Diem‘ changed entirely when he met with Olamide, and the young producer is responsible for 7 of the album’s 12 tracks. At the same time, some of the biggest hits have been helmed by the leaders of the new school, Bad Boy Timz, Omah Lay and Bella Shmurda. More than providing us with good music, the album is emblematic of Olamide’s status as an OG, who is actively making room for the next generation. It’s surprising that an artist as culturally relevant through two decades of Nigerian music as he is would need to reveal a different side of himself, but his need to try on new stylistic choices is proof of a genuine love for music and need to facilitate the soundscape’s growth.
With a good stock of featured appearances keeping her in mind, Amaarae released her first single of the year halfway through 2020, beginning her debut album campaign with the relatable, “LEAVE ME ALONE”. There, singing of her self-worth and demanding that her space and privacy be respected, the follow up single, “FANCY” is equally as self-affirming, also including the sex-positive tones that are customary on Amaarae records. Months later, when ‘THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW’ finally dropped in November, Amaarae’s motivational quips and libidinous lyrics were pieced into the full-scale puzzle of a millennial creative. Sexually liberated – and fluid – “blowing on the internet”, but still crossing her fingers that she’ll make her millions so she’s able to spoil her mother with a Bentley, Amaarae speaks to all budding creatives trying to make it, inspiring listeners to be and love our true selves, through the irresistible sonics of her magnificent debut album.
Whilst her content is relatable, Amaarae’s singing and rapping styles are extraordinary, incomparable, unmatched. Her familiarity with the upper register is infamous; hitting the high notes effortlessly on sung numbers, Amaarae also excels at rapping up there, in a sexy avant-garde style that allures listeners with its uniqueness – though Moliy and Princess Adjua boast mind-blowing chemistry with Amaarae, as their voices flow relatively indistinguishable from one another on “FEEL A WAY”. Of course, the same can’t be said for her other, male featured artists, but ‘TAYDK’ still draws out the best of the likes of Santi – who exercises his singing muscles – or Odunsi (The Engine), who brings his raw, jaded experiences for an authentic record that captures youthful folly in its entirety. KZdidit’s reverberated hook on “PARTY SAD FACE” is phenomenal, but, as with all the collaborations on the album, Amaarae’s powers are not ever overshadowed. On many albums this year, guests have been known to wash their hosts, but throughout ‘THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW’ Amaarae stays in charge. Experimenting with heavy metal on the “D*A*N*G*E*R*O*U*S” intro, Alt-Pop on her California-tinted interlude, escaping into a cartoonish universe on the outro “CRAZY WURLD”, Amaarae is successful in her various forays, but ultimately it is her own personal style that wins, on the album, in our ears and on this list.
There is a wildly boisterous moment at the beginning of “Something Fishy”, one of the first songs on ‘A Better Time’, that provides a glimpse into why Davido is one of the most defining acts of his generation. With a slight drop of his inflection when he vocalises “Wait!” he elevates the ponderous pace of the song into bacchanal fare, proving his mettle for seeking out unique Pop anthems. Very few artists take the Pop genre as seriously as Davido does, even fewer have his commitment to conjuring hits that will blare out of speakers in malls for months on end. On ‘A Better Time’, Davido’s third studio album and second in less than 12 months, the artist is in prime Pop-singing form as he hops from Afro-fusion to Hip-Hop-tinged Pop to Amapiano-inspired beats with relative ease, even if his dynamism means that the singles there work better as a playlist that an “album.” In a year when buzzwords like “quarantine”, “social distancing”, and “lockdown” have entrenched themselves in our cultural landscape, Davido has also been hard at work to make music to help us ignore this unusual normal.
The entire essence of the Afrocentric band, The Cavemen, channels the nostalgic highlife sound that raved in our country during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Since their 2019 debut, the pair have tread a path unique to them, fusing elements of Jazz and Soul music with their evident Highlife influences to create their version of futuristic Highlife; a coalition of slices of the past and their modern perspectives. This sonically opulent history is expanded further on ‘ROOTS’, their critically-acclaimed debut album. Just six minutes short of an hour, the sixteen-tracker is concurrently an expansive journey through the rich sound of highlife and a heartfelt ode to the soundtrack of our country’s traumatic history and political turmoil. On ‘ROOTS’, the brother duo take on many forms; they are the village elders continually dishing out advice to any who wish to heed; they are love-sprung men, exploring themes of freshly tapped love as they render lyrical attempts to woo a woman; they are the town square entertainers, delivering communal music for merrymaking. Further listening and The Cavemen’s goal becomes clearer by the second; they are here to uphold the legacy of Highlife, but they’re much more than revivalists – they’re dedicated to creating instantly timeless music rooted in their authenticity.
With the most impressive discography of his era and a bunch of classic records, Burna Boy’s quality is a glaring light. His music is, at different times, joyous, conversational, painful, triumphant, and always features a rich voice engaged in the intersection of personal and communal stories.
‘Twice As Tall’ – his fifth album – came after his fourth, ‘African Giant‘, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Album category. The eventual winner Angelique Kidjo would dedicate her award to young African stars taking the sound global, naming Burna Boy himself. Months later, it would be another African legend, from the era of Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour, who turns star feature on “Level Up”, the album’s emotional opener. Burna Boy stitched this album to the weight of his Grammy loss but more importantly, to how he’s dug in to emerge with even more great music. Each song realises its full potential, helped by the expertise of American strongholds Diddy, Mike Dean and Andre Harris, paired with the local flavour from Nigerian producers like LeriQ, Rexxie and Telz.
Contrast of black and white render photographs legibility, and on ‘Twice As Tall‘, Burna Boy is both grim and optimistic; immersed in dangerous scenarios one moment, singing alongside a choir and seeking divine protection the next (“Bank On It”). This artsy handling of detail imbibes many Burna Boy songs with great visual prospect and ‘TAT‘ is especially exceptional, producing three excellent videos already (“Monsters You Made”, “Real Life” and “Way Too Big”). “Oya Do Am If E Easy”, he says now on the Meji Alabi clip with a smile, knowing ‘TAT‘ has earned his second Grammy nomination and could become the first golden gramophone he owns.
October was a tough month for Nigerians. In bleak moments where we watched security forces who are sworn to protect us bully, brutalise and kill fellow citizens in real time, in addition to the government’s lackadaisical response to our complaints about being killed for no reason, there wasn’t much that made us feel good to be Nigerian. Wizkid’s long awaited album, ‘Made In Lagos‘ was postponed in solidarity of the moment, and the juggernaut dedicated his time to fighting alongside the rest of us. After a long month of consuming tragedy every single day, ‘Made In Lagos’ finally came and it was the first time in what felt like forever, there was any collective joy.
More than good music, ‘Made In Lagos’ was the medicine we all needed. The triumphant declarations on the album’s opener, “Reckless” juxtaposed the despondency we all felt; seeing our two G.O.A.Ts collaborate on “Ginger” hit different; hearing our peers, Tay Iwar and Tems on a Wizkid album was a measure of growth for a burgeoning scene; and the uplifting message on the Damien Marley-assisted “Blessed” helped us find hope and gratitude in a bleak situation. Without even setting out to, ‘Made In Lagos’ made being Nigerian, feel good again, and in a year laden with loss, confusion and tragedy, the best music is the kind you can feel, and that’s what makes it the best album of 2020.