Best of 2020: The Top 10 Rappers of The Year
Focalistic, Nasty C, Olamide are some of the finest rappers we've had all year
Focalistic, Nasty C, Olamide are some of the finest rappers we've had all year
August 11, 2020 marked the 47th anniversary of DJ Kool Herc’s iconic party on Sedgwick Avenue, a date which has been adopted as the official birth date of hip-hop. As it inches towards five decades of existence, hip-hop (both as a culture and music genre) has made its way, from its institution in the Bronx, to every corner of the world. From contemporary Nigerian pop music, to hiplife in Ghana, and kwaito in South Africa, hip-hop has had a profound influence on the fabric of African music in the last three decades.
With that, it’s only right that rap music continues to find ways to thrive across the continent. There’s a widespread belief that rap is several steps below varying forms of afropop in terms of commercial acclaim, which isn’t entirely unfounded, but that idea undercuts all of the positives, from the overflow of rap artists around, to the infinite, ever-evolving range of styles. To anyone that paid attention to rap music across the continent in 2020, it’s obvious that the genre contributed its fair share to the sonic landscape, spawning hit songs, laudable projects, and continued growth in craft.
To reflect the wholesomeness of rap music in Africa this year, our list pulls in hit-makers, lyricists, experimental stylists, and everything in between. It’s a celebration of not just the best rappers of the year, but also the variety and boundary-pushing ethos that will keep rap music in its upward trajectory.
As far as sheer range, there aren’t too many others rappers on the continent who operate on Joey B’s level. Over the years, the Ghanaian rapper has been building a catalogue driven by versatility, emphasising variety in his music, and becoming one of the best at adapting his voice to features, no matter the sound. In May, Joey put out ‘Lava Feels’, his second-ever project which he simply described as “a collection of songs”. Even with this low-stakes billing, the 9-track tape is an arrogant display of Joey’s increasing command of his powers, and one of the most enjoyable rap projects this year. ‘Lava Feels’ is a trip through several, varying sounds, ranging from synthy trap to breezy G-Funk, with Joey’s ability to effortlessly navigate through each sonic choice serving as the magnetic element. With several features and a contender for hardest rap song of the year, “Akobam”, Joey put in a stellar shift in 2020.
At 28, Prettyboy D-O might be one of the most consistent and intriguing characters in the Nigerian hip-hop scene. His mix of bruising raps and dancehall-inspired melodies alongside his energetic personality has garnered him a cult-like following since his entry into the scene. 2018’s ‘Everything Pretty’ arrived with a bang at the time of its release, proving D-O’s knack for cadence, storytelling, and melody, but this year, he’s dialled it up a few notches with the release of his highly-anticipated follow up ‘Wildfire’. The new project is excellent, teeming with a wider stylistic range than he has previously employed, as we see the singer effortlessly dancing over menacing and boisterous production while delivering hip-hop perfection.
This year has been a good time for D O to flext his muscles, and for him the highlight of the year was the rapper landing a killer verse from Olamide on “Wetin You Smoke” and the debut of his latest socially-inclined number “Jungle Justice”, a hard-hitting rap song that spoke to the times we’re currently living in. Much like he usually does, he tells the tale of the underdog who continues to suffer at the hands of the powers that be, and judging by what we’ve seen so far, we expect him to only build on that momentum in 2021 where he’s teasing his debut full length LP.
It’s difficult to engage in any conversations about rappers delivering on their best form this year without considering Mavin’s Ladipoe as a shoo-in for the famed title. The self-proclaimed Leader of the Revival has been tirelessly working all year long, trying and testing the boundaries of his pen game with his weekly freestyles as well as a string of singles, which each had their solid moments.
This year, after signalling the inception of Revival Season once again with the release of his earlier offerings “Revival Mode” and “Tailor Made”, he began building up hype and anticipation for what was to come. With his description of his bars as teeming with purpose on the self-assured number “Tailor Made”, it’s no surprise that Ladipoe is able to maintain this much impact in the game with only a few releases in the bag. However, it was the Teni-assisted “Lemme Know Remix” that proved to us beyond doubt that Ladipoe is here to stay. Building upon an already great song, Ladipoe found a way to create more momentum for the already popular song, by including fans with a call for freestyle submissions to the beat.
Ladipoe’s sweet spot is that his rap is adaptable to whatever the message he needs to send across is, he’s an all-round artist and can adapt to whichever genre or beat he finds himself working with. When we last spoke to the artist back in April, he shared he sees himself not only as a rapper but “a songwriter—[I am] an artist”. He keeps outdoing himself to the point where it’s fairly difficult to predict his next move, but from his impressive track record this year, it’s clear that he’s an artist with true staying power.
Thanks, in no small part, to the late, great Pop Smoke, Drill music became a ubiquitous sound at the top of this year, and as we’ve gone through 2020, we’ve seen more and more artists dip their toes into the angsty waters, as others emerge as Drill acts through and through. The latter category is where Ghana’s O’Kenneth belongs. A forerunner in arguably the biggest Drill movement coming out of Africa, O’Kenneth’s deep raspy vocals smoothly and effortlessly gliding over the year’s favourite groove, has been a particular highlight in rap music this year.
Dropping freestyles and covers early last year, O’Kenneth built up his following with his fast-flowing indigenous rap, and this year is making more serious plays alongside his famed record label, Life Living Records. Constantly collaborating with his label crew, you’ll hardly hear O’Kenneth alone, but his command of each song ensures that he’s never lost in the mix. With a strong repertoire of rapping styles behind him, from sung rap to an offbeat flex, O’Kenneth boasts a versatility that keeps his performances fresh and enables him to kill any record. Designated the opening verse of Sean Lifer’s “Ma Drip”, O’Kenneth also leads on the celebrated “Akatafoc”, a strong indication that even his label mates appreciate his penchant for arresting audiences with his bars. This year, along with the excitement of local Drill that brings in our African experiences on familiar Western sounds, O’Kenneth also brought to the scene his promising, genuine talent that we’ve got our eyes on for next year.
All over the world, rap is primed for a new kind of energy that will aid evolution throughout the 2020s. After nearly half a decade of old heads coming for ‘mumble rap’ and those at the helm of it, two of 2020’s hottest rappers of (Lil Baby and Roddy Ricch) are a direct product of the evolution of mumble rap. Back home, in the decades old, yet still burgeoning rap scene, evolution doesn’t seem like such a welcome thought, and as such, solid rappers such as Zlatan are often counted out of rap conversation for straying slightly away from the set tenets of ‘what rap should be’. This leaves me with a lot to wonder, because when you consider his proximity to the streets ✓ storytelling ✓, flow ✓, longevity ✓ impact and commercial success ✓, one wonders what else it takes to be considered a rapper. Regardless, it’s been hard to ignore Zlatan since he broke out, and has been at the helm of the mainstream appeal indigenous rap has seen in recent years. This year, he’s continued the strong, winning streak he started out with a short two years ago, with a plethora of features and tracks that gained the attention of the whole nation, whilst still waxing lyrical in a completely different language. From brining Obesere back in the beginning of the year, to closing out the year with the triumphant “Lagos Anthem”, Zlatan’s position as one of the year’s strongest rappers leaves little to contend with, and I don’t ever want to have a conversation about rap that excludes Zlatan.
If you deep it properly, Focalistic is something of a visionary. For as long as rap music has indented pop culture in Africa, there’s been a debate between “keeping it real” and making it accessible to the immediate audience. There’s no mistaking where Focalistic lands, his tagline, “Ase trap tse ke pina tso ko kasi”, literally translates to, “it’s not trap, it’s songs from the hood”. As amapiano was brewing into the global sound of South African hoods, Focalistic was one of the first rappers to adopt the infectious sound, a sonic ability he’s mastered without sacrificing his ability to make straightforward rap songs.
In 2020, he became a go-to collaborator for ‘Piano producers, including Kabza De Small, Semi Tee, and Vigro Deep, scoring his biggest hit till date, “Ke Star”, with the latter. Earlier this month, he dropped ‘Sghubu Ses Excellent’, continuing his dominant run with an impressive project that strengthens his potent fusion of amapiano and rap. Focalistic dedicated his year to being busy in service of his immediate audience, showing in his own way, that there’s nothing more important than keeping the streets fed.
Costa Titch’s presence in the South African music scene has been impossible to ignore since he started out as a member of the dance crew, New Age Steez. He already garnered some attention as the pioneer of a new kind of trap sound, which takes influence from the new generation of Soundcloud rappers such as Lil Pump.
South African music has had it’s fair moment throughout 2020, and this year, Costa Titch’s mosh pit inducing raps provided rap fans the energy to rage. Teaming up with AKA and Riky Rick for one of this year’s biggest South African rap songs, “Nkalakatha Remix”, Costa Titch’s experience as a dancer allowed him to deliver attention-grabbing choreographed dance moves in the video, which made the song even more popular, as fans mirrored his moves on their TikTok posts, a feat rappers such as Drake, Megan Thee Stallion and more have achieved this year as well. His impressive run was wrapped up with his debut album, ‘Made in Africa’, offering fans a collection of new club bangers with an A-class guest list of features that includes AKA, 25K, DJ Maphorisa, Riky Rick and more. With talent sprawling from all over the continent with diverse styles and cadence, it will take no time for the African rap soundscape to create it’s own identity.
Having sat at the top of his game for over a decade, Olamide is having his full-circle moment and with it, we’re getting more authentic music to show off his incredible range. As we know, Nigeria’s rap scene loves to carve out a special place for indigenous rappers, rather than including them as rappers in their own rights. Having taken the sound to mainstream level, and even more impressively out of the country and the continent, this year was Olamide’s year of the flex and with a joint venture with Empire, and two projects, let’s never disrespect this man again. This year, he explored both his popular sounds and gave fans a rap themed album, ‘999’ as well as a pop album, ‘Carpe Diem’.
As always, more than the music, Olamide has always been one to expand the culture, and apart from highlighting Olamide’s range and consistency, both albums also highlight Olamide’s knack for discovering young tealent and giving them a platform for their talents to be recognised. For ‘999’, he featured upcoming rappers like Fresh Meat alum, Cheque, Jackmillz, Milly, and more, leading in the next generation while on ‘Carpe Diem’ artists such as Omah Lay, Bad Boy Timz and Bella Shmurda stole the show, while Olamide just sat back and did the thing we always enjoy.
In case you didn’t know, Nasty C is African rap music royalty. If you have any doubts, here’s a quick rundown of the rapper’s packed year: he signed a recording deal with prestigious hip-hop label, Def Jam; he dropped ‘Zulu’, a pre-album mixtape hosted by the renowned DJ Whookid, which was followed shortly after by his highly anticipated junior LP, ‘Zulu Man with Some Power’; and, in collaboration with Red Bull, a documentary of his trip to Japan began streaming on Netflix. What’s incredible is that, the elevated hype of these endeavours were always matched by the quality of his raps and the overall music.
For many, especially previously initiated listeners, Nasty C didn’t have much to prove, but with every move positioning him as the go-to ambassador of rap music out of Africa only raised expectations, he clearly lived up to it. On ‘Zulu’, he matched some of his most inventive and playful wordplay with indelible flows, vividly channelling his Lil Wayne influence into a dazzling, low stakes act. ‘ZMWSP’ applied that showboating trait to a stunning project that oscillated between invincible and human; one moment he’s handing down boastful edicts from Mount Olympus, in the next he’s appreciating his father over tribal chants. 2020 was the year Nasty C entered a godly realm, and he did it in awe-inspiring fashion.
Amaarae’s bid for Rapper of the Year was placed with highly favourable odds back in May, with her indelible opening verse on the instant classic, “body count”. One of her earlier performances this year, Amaarae has gone on to count several other invaluable feature credits, both as a singer and a rapper. When it comes to the duality of her talents, her recent back to back appearance on Ghanaian rapper Dex Kwasi’s project – or earlier, on Rvdical The Kid’s “NASA” – say it all: Amaarae is a rapper first and a singer second. From hearing “HyPNOTIZE” and “WANT MY HoE BACK” you’ll quickly learn that her rapping goes harder, a claim we can back up by the superior commercial success of the former track.
Spending the year cementing her place as a bonafide rapper cum singer, Amaarae has been doing so whilst also proving she’s unrivalled in both fields. With her high-pitched, soft-toned, (sometimes) sung rapping style, nobody is doing it quite like Amaarae, and her brand of music has been, more delectable than other rap performers attempting to steal our attention. As she introduces “Still Dey Inside” with an acapella fast flow, by the 10-second mark, it’s clear that Amaarae has already washed the other rappers on the track – after the full four minutes, it’s confirmed. Her debut album, ‘The Angel You Don’t Know’ takes this washing industry-wise – continent wise. Popularly touted as one of the best albums to come out of Africa this year, ‘TAYDK’ ticks every box: her lyricism is enviable as always, her flow is unmatched (though Moliy makes an outstanding attempt on “SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY”), her style is versatile, production is flawless and she makes good use of timeless musical samples, which is one of the core attributes of rap music.
As the world increasingly spurns its patriarchal order, in several male-dominated fields we’re seeing the undoing of androcentric customs that afford men more space and encourage women to accommodate men for a chance at success. Of course, music is one of these fields. These days, women making music have just a little more freedom and autonomy over their creations and also their branding. Pandering to male-dictated tropes is growing archaic, and across Africa, the rapper that most exemplifies this progressive advancement in music is Amaarae. Effusing positivity everywhere she appears, in her music, Amaarae preaches – to women, but applicable to all people – the ‘be true to you’ mantra in the most aspirational of ways.
It is often said by hip-hop critics that the best in the game are the ones who spit their truth. Rappers are so often criticised for faking hood status, mimicking the genuine trauma experienced by their icons, in a bid to walk in their footsteps of success. As a millennial African musician who lived in America for a period, Amaarae spitting her truth sounds vastly different to Jay Z’s greatest hits, but hers don’t slap any less. Whether it’s fully embracing her toxic traits, knowing when to gesture a T for time out, bragging about her new money, and revealing her multiple sexcapades, Amaarae is not shy to share any part of her life on a song. It’s this authenticity that bolsters her unique flow and pitch, to make her one of the best rappers in Africa. This year, the best.
Written by Adewojumi Aderemi, Debola Abimbolu, Dennis Ade-Peter and Tami Makinde.