We’ve heard a lot about the death of live music this year, but to what extent does that affect a rap scene like MA’s in which many of the artists never had access to those spaces in the first place? It’s been well documented that Boston rappers have historically been shut out of venues due to institutional racism. They’ve had to be inventive from the jump — creating their own spaces, reaching fans online, wearing multiple hats, doing all sorts of cross-marketing. Brockton, MA rapper Lord Felix is perhaps most emblematic of this. He didn’t drop a single project all year, yet you could find his pins in Newbury Comics, his designs on several NBA and WNBA players’ merch, and his trademark visor among the Instagram filters.
The way COVID has really affected MA rappers is by getting rid of underground shows. Basement concerts, house parties, New England college tours. These smaller events create fan loyalty in a way unlike other music experiences. It’s how I became a fan of Connis and Michael Christmas and so many other names you’ll see on the list below.
Still, even without shows, MA rap in 2020 was undeniably good. I think more outsiders (and insiders, tbh) are getting hip to how far the scene travels past Boston. And it’s in large part thanks to a young collective from Brockton who take their name from a Seinfeld gang: Van Buren Records.
.@SAINTLYOR slid on this! Boston stand up 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ycMeKrjjwi
— RapCaviar (@RapCaviar) October 27, 2020
*BROCKTON stand up. Boston y’all can stand up too though
— RapCaviar (@RapCaviar) October 28, 2020
VB VB VB
Luke Bar$ – GoodEvil
Listening to “Die With Pride,” the sinewy centerpiece of Luke Bar$‘s debut album GoodEvil, gives me the same feeling I had when I first heard Kendrick. He raps with a similar dexterity, as though he and the beat have known each other for years. Like Kendrick, Luke also thinks a lot about where he’s from. A lot of this record finds him reflecting on home in its many forms: family, friends, the crib, and, of course, the studio, a cheap room in a converted factory where he’s undoubtedly clocked his 10,000 hours. All over GoodEvil, he skips and skates across beats like a ballet dancer. The most powerful parts, however, are when he turns those reps into dark, diaristic moments. Read this great interview Dylan Green did with Luke back in February.
Saint Lyor – IF MY SINS COULD TALK
A lot of the Van Buren buzz in 2019 revolved around Saint Lyor’s “Gossip,” a perfect mission statement record where Lyor claims Brockton and airs out everyone making shit up about him. It was only his second single ever, but was already bringing him and VB attention they hadn’t had before. How would that sound translate to an album? As it turned out, not too badly. In March, Saint Lyor dropped IF MY SINS COULD TALK, a fun tape that aims for more of the catchiness of “Gossip.” There are songs like “Finsta” and “Aunt Jemima” that are pretty amazing bits of pop rap, but Lyor can also get more brooding, like on “This Is Not An Image,” which also boasts one of the best music videos of the year.
Ricky Felix – High End Theory
The closest thing we have to a proper VB group album. The star here, of course, is the crew’s lead producer Ricky Felix, who operates with laser focus and an expansive vision both melodic and grimy. You can’t be a great producer without impeccable drums, and Felix’s are butter. He also has the mindset of a songwriter — he knows when to pull back and let the rappers go to work. High End Theory flows with poise and purpose, and the features from non-VB artists like Kadeem and Sean Wire are killer.
Meech – I’ll Be Back Soon, I Promise / Barriers To Knowing
110% the dark horse of VB. His two EPs this year were so nice. Meech is a thoughtful rapper with an affinity for beats that swell like sails and radiate warmth.
Jiles – It’s Not Much, But It’s Mine
Jiles’s voice is like concrete and razor blades. Try his EP It’s Not Much, But It’s Mine — the deluxe includes the stellar posse cut “Rutland.”
Some other 2020 favorites I had to write about. Full list (and playlists) at the bottom.
Mulah Mitch – “Side Street”
Roxbury’s Mulah Mitch raps with the kind of flow you could either pin-point to two decades ago or ten years from now. It’s like if you took a classical painting and painted a rainbow streak across it. The beat could’ve made it to 2000s New York radio, but the rapping is truly alien. It’s beautiful in the way Allen Iverson was with his hesis — the stop-start where the ball floats in his palm initially feels unorthodox, maybe even illegal, but then becomes the reason you watch. Shoutout Steady Leanin’ for helping blow this up. MA rap song of the year.
Mal Devisa & DJ Lucas – Vicious Nonbeliever
There’s a feeling of total isolation you experience driving alone through the Berkshires. Depending on the time of day, you might only see a handful of other cars over the course of a couple hours. For me, it’s a little unsettling. When no one’s around, I accelerate just to get to civilization faster, watching the mountains turn to a green wall.
Last summer, Mal Devisa’s 2016 album Kiid made those trips feel less isolating. Maybe because when Devisa sings, it sounds like she’s at sound-check, performing in a big room for a few stragglers, for you. It’s an orphic swirl of nimble bass work and mystical poetry. Her voice evokes the fire of Nina Simone’s. The components are minimal — just bass and vocals — but together, they swell into something much bigger and more defiant. These songs make you conscious of your own body and everything around it.
By contrast, Vicious Nonbeliever is a tighter, more rap-heavy record. Produced by fellow Western Masser DJ Lucas, it finds Devisa belting big melodies and rapping knotty passages over some of the brashest beats she’s ever had.
SALEM – “mai tai”
This is definitely more R&B than rap but too good to not shout out. “mai tai” is the kind of gem that lowers your blood pressure and makes shit right for a couple minutes. SALEM’s voice is pure bliss. We need that project!
Poleboy D Rose – “ZAZA”
Not gonna lie, when drill first landed in Boston, most of the music besides what G Fredo and 7981 Kal were doing wasn’t that compelling. I’d rather listen to Brooklyn drill 99% of the time. But Poleboy D Rose is flipping that notion on its head. “ZAZA” gets stuck in your head fast. Favorite Boston drill song of the year.
SuperSmashBroz – Black Soap
If you see the name “SuperSmashBroz” on the bill for any MA event, you know it’s gonna be a smash. Muyi Fresco and Nasa, Boston blood brothers, have been putting in work over the last few years as DJs, producers and curators. They’ve always been extremely tapped in with Afrobeats, and Black Soap represents their best and boldest endeavor into the genre. Enlisting Bostonians like Caliph and Che Ecru alongside rising stars from Nigeria like Terri and CKay, they dropped the kind of record that is begging to be played on a hot summer’s day as you cruise through the city.
Connis & bby._j – SESSIONS: 001 / Waited All Summer For The Weekend
Love both these projects from Connis, the new New Orleans transplant. (You’re still MA if you leave, idc.) Connis is a lowkey amazing writer, even if his lines aren’t the kind that a dude in a fitted would yell “BARS!” after. It’s more about the sentiment he bottles up in those lines. He raps about being caught between places, trying to make a career out of music, feeling both trapped and comforted by Cambridge, MA, his old home. He packs so much into his verses, and when he produces for himself, it sounds like he’s shaping the beat around the words he already has in his head. On SESSIONS: 001, he teams up with fellow Mass producer bby._j to bring a slew of fun songs that doubles as a showcase of other artists from the scene. Waited All Summer For The Weekend is slower, fuzzier, and features a really moving tribute to his friend, the late Rizzo Rackz.
Best NBA Rapper: Marcus Smart
MA Rap, 2020
Vintage Lee – “KADAKAKA”
Lance Jackson feat. Luke Bar$ – “Aww Shit”
Van Buren Boys – “Mo in the Benz”
Neemz – “Lifethativebeenlivin”
Trottie Y Gizzle – “The Real”
BoriRock feat. Swipey – “Moshpit”
$hayBand$ – “Distant”
Kadeem – “Big Gains”
Latrell James – “When”
BIA feat. Lil Durk – “Same Hands”
Bekah CC – “No Change”
Gogo. – “Danger”
Mulah Mitch – “Side Street”
$ean Wire – “Where I’m At”
SuperSmashBroz feat. Caliph & Siete – “Link Up”
Saint Lyor – “Finsta”
SALEM – “mai tai”
Cousin Stizz – “Crocodile Tears”
Q Philly & 8 Zipp – “No Handouts”
Michael Christmas – “Nissan Altima”
Avenue – “SOUTH END/LOWER ROXBURY 1980 SOMETHING”
Mal Devisa & DJ Lucas feat. Reed – “Bring Me Back”
DJ Lucas – “I Still Dream”
Luke Bar$ – “Die With Pride”
G Fredo – “This My City”
Meech – “Dey Controlling Da Hype”
Connis feat. Rizzo Rackz – “Rizzo’s Song”
Sidestreet Capo & Mulah Mitch – “Yessuh”
DTheFlyest – “Toxic”
Maka Oceania – “Options”
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