2020 was a turbulent year for independent artists. Despite losing significant revenue and touring opportunities, indie artists made out with more focus on them than ever, thanks in large part to an industry push for more transparency in how labels operate and an increasing desire for artists to control their own masters. While the battle for relevance and fair play is far from over, there is a burgeoning understanding in the industry that independent, creative thinkers are just as important to us as we are to them. The following five projects have all the luster and less of the shine, projects that may have fallen between the cracks but will still stand the test of time.
The sound of Brooklyn-based Myles Cameron cannot be corralled as “just R&B” or “just hip-hop”, it defies conventional labels and explores new boundaries. A project best described as an emotional rollercoaster; Cameron finds a way to inject more soul into 5 songs than most artists can fit in an entire album. Exploring loss and pain in familiar ways with unfamiliar insights, something coalesces to create a very special project that does not come around very often. In lead single, “LED”, endearingly disjointed and hazy synths tussle beneath the lullaby-esque vocals of Cameron as he lays down an evocative late-night ballad for the ages. “Fall to Peace” functions as a beautiful meditation on death and the immense value placed on our time on this Earth. “Counting Sheep” envelopes the listener in a distinctly personal radiance of emotion that feels especially calming. Perhaps the standout quality of Cameron’s music is how each track exhibits growth, never resting on one iteration of a melody or sample but constantly changing, moving. Embodying quality over quantity, Black Sheep is one of the most polished EPs of the year.
Despite all the great releases that 2020 has had to offer, there still exists something like a giant Isaiah Rashad-shaped hole in many fans’ hearts. However, one needs to look no further than Nashville’s own Brian Brown to find prodigious Southern hip-hop delivered over dusty drums and jazzy samples. The first full-length release from Brown feels effortless, with rapping almost blurring into the conversational. Through every track, Brown maintains his T.I.-esque southern drawl and gives the record his distinct “Flava” through storytelling and laidback asides that blend perfectly with his catchy hooks. Journey is best described as just that, a tour through Brown’s hometown with assistance from his contemporaries and fellow Tennessee artists such as Lul Lion and Reaux Marquez. With themes jumping from gentrification to Brown’s own maturation, the project stays centered over the stellar sampling and polished drumbeats. Cuts like “Stay” and “Runnin” showcase the slow rap ballads of which Brown is fully capable of delivering, while “Steely Dan” and “Come on In” deliver the more conventional swing-heavy bangers that feel familiar to any aficionado of Southern rap. At the end of a full spin of Brown’s debut album, one feels as though they just took a ride through Nashville, with a more appreciative eye for the details and a more developed sense of community.
Ajani Jones has come a long way in a relatively short time. The Chicago lyricist has developed a rabid underground following with dense wordplay and undeniable wit. Kenya EP is truly Jones at his best, with reflective and intensely personal subject matter relating to Jones’ mother Kenya and his Windy City upbringing. Boom-bap production emphasizes the vocals of Jones, giving his yarns and analogies no place to hide. A searing and tender introduction track, “1994” provides everything the listener needs to know about the coming tracks, with subtle lyricism and raw vocals that set the tone for the project as a whole. “Kids” feels so deeply unique as a track and manages to provide nostalgia even as a listener with no ties to Chicago. “One Time” functions as a breezy anthemic track focusing on trust and staying true to your roots. Each individual cut feels important to the interwoven narrative of the project, something that enables the creativity and singularity of Jones to shine through. A lyricist through and through, everything about the EP plays to Jones’ strengths, making it hard to not be excited for one of Chicago’s next up.
Versatility seeps through every aspect of Asha Imuno’s sophomore effort, an all-encompassing project that touches on so many aspects that sit in the forefront of our subconscious. The Moreno Valley, CA native delivers hard-hitting hip-hop production layered over lines that touch on current events and personal development. A member of the rising California hip-hop collective Raised by the Internet, headed by Jelani Aryeh, Imuno has become a jack-of-all-trades since his debut Full Disclosure released last year. Capable of delivering a variety of flows and cadences, Good News is a hip-hop smorgasbord of alternative production and vulnerable lyricism. Lead single “SIX PACK” delivers a hazy ode to growing up and glowing up, featuring multiple beat switches with Imuno competently commandeering each one. “CAVIAR” enlists fellow RBTI member Gidi over an arpeggiated Eastern-infused beat with perhaps the catchiest hook of the project. “DREW THE LINE” explores the oft-overlooked male side of the no-strings-attached arrangement when feelings start to develop, an undeniably sweet and tender cut that maintains the genuine feeling the project exudes. Any listener who appreciates the honest storytelling of an Aminé or Kota the Friend will fall in love with this project, an all-around impressive outing that elicits multiple listens.
Gritty, sample-driven hip-hop has had an unprecedented year; between the legendary production run by The Alchemist and the undefeated release schedule of Griselda, 2020 has resurrected the classic 90's Wu-tang sound more than ever thought possible. This is how Hus Kingpin was able to drop one of the biggest hidden gems of the year in his Threesome EP that largely went under the radar in a renaissance of underground New York hip-hop. The Long Island artist certainly takes pages from the ledgers of Roc Marciano and Benny the Butcher but make no mistake, his music is wholly its own. Kingpin provides a distinct and adamant voice that resonates more than most rappers and already has an extensive discography to back it up. While Threesome is certainly no fluke, the abbreviated runtime and focused sampling provide the strongest outing yet for Kingpin. Tracks like "Magic" and "Say So" are deliberately evocative of the old New York classics yet understated enough to feel fresh. Exquisite bass and gilded samples provide a listen smoother than any other, with tracks blending perfectly and beginning directly where the last track ends. Kingpin is set to drop his Portishead-inspired Portishus EP in the coming weeks, sure to further his artistry and expand his loyal fanbase.