2020: The Year Black British Music Could Not Be Stopped

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been the kindest year to music. With the outbreak of the coronavirus halting live shows, promo campaigns and physical artist-fan interaction—resulting in lost revenue for scores of artists, publications and music companies—the last 365 days have threatened to bring the entire industry to its knees. Proving resourceful, Black British music has risen to the challenge of weathering the Covid-shaped storm, growing in stature to become more dynamic, varied and colourful than it’s ever been. Amongst it all, artists have reached new heights, made impactful debuts and consolidated growing reputations with consistently brilliant output.

Taking his powers to the top of the UK charts this year was Tottenham rapper Headie One, whose steady transformation from incendiary driller to well-rounded artist is perhaps the year’s greatest arc. Dropping his GANG project with electronic producer Fred Again in March (to lukewarm reception), Headie followed up in October with his debut album, EDNA, reaching number one on the UK album charts and producing bangers such as “Ain’t It Different” and “Princess Cuts”. Earlier in the year, cult hero Nines also reached the summit of UK music with his latest album Crabs In A Bucket, marking an incredible rise from the streets of Harlesden, North West London, to a select group of UK rap artists reaching the pinnacle of commercial UK music.

Making a strong case for 2020’s MVP, Ghetts scorched the earth with a number of singles (“Mozambique”, “Microsoft Word”, “IC3”) and features that prove the Newham legend is ageing, lyrically, like a fine wine. The world eagerly awaits his forthcoming album. Meanwhile, the scene’s elder statesmen came through with some memorable releases, including D Double E’s latest offering, D.O.N, and Dizzee Rascal’s first album in three years, E3 AF. Add efforts from Manga Saint Hilaire, a supergroup containing Skepta, Chip and Young Adz and a surprise mixtape drop from Giggs, and it’s clear that our legends were having fun in 2020, stealing some limelight from their younger contemporaries.

We had to know 2020 would be an amazing year when J Hus dropped his sophomore album, Big Conspiracy, in January, nearly three years after his modern classic debut, Common Sense. As smooth as ever, Hus added a new edge (if that was even possible), aided by self-reliance and revolutionary thought, an exciting new chapter for the legend in making. ‘Comeback King’ may also be an apt way to describe UK rap stalwart Potter Payper, who marked an incredible year with a triumphant return to the game with two successful projects after a stretch in prison.

Over 100 miles north of London, in the city of Coventry, Pa Salieu showered the game with his genius. Making a splash with “Frontline” and follow-ups “Betty”, “Bang Out” and “My Family”, his debut project Send Them To Coventry was a grand entrance, with Pa’s addictive, energetic performances overwhelming the scene. The next year will be a bright one for the young Gambian brudda. Also making some weighty first impressions were the likes of BackRoad Gee, Ivorian Doll, Shaybo, Scribz Riley and ENNY who, across rap, grime and R&B, added exciting and unpredictable new layers to the game.

Similarly, the ascent of No Signal Radio throughout 2020 offered a glimpse into the future of British broadcasting. Founded by brothers David and Jojo Sonubi, with its early popularity jettisoned by their #NS10v10 DJ battles, NS has gone from strength to strength, showcasing the multi-layered greatness of Black music.

UK drill also continued to shine throughout the year, further highlighting the creative strengths of its representatives. The likes of Abra Cadabra, Digga D and Unknown T provided some of the biggest hits of the year (“On Deck”, “Woi” and “Deh Deh”, respectively), while M1llionz, Bandokay & Double Lz, Kwengface and Teezandos emerged to stake their claims as the sound’s newest sensations.

2020 was, of course, the year of the great rap beef that never was. In October, North London legend Chip’s combustible sends for Stormzy, via double whammy “Killer MC” and “Flowers”, revealed a simmering tension between the two grime/rap titans. While Stormzy is yet to respond, Chip’s tenacity in carrying the war himself served as exciting viewing for the neutrals.

Elsewhere, the R&B and jazz scenes came out in full force throughout the year. Albums from Moses Boyd, Oscar Jerome, Nubya Garcia, Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes, Shabaka & The Ancestors and countless other jazz acts helped grow the stature of the UK scene to a worldwide audience. Meanwhile, the likes of BenjiFlow, TianaMajor9, Cleo Sol, SAULT and more expanded the sonic parameters of R&B, redefining how it can sound and the emotions it can evoke.

Proving that not even a pandemic could halt its unstoppable ascent, Black British music is in an incredible position as the new decade rolls on. New and dynamic players have emerged, while the OGs have remained consistent, speaking to the scene’s strength on all fronts. Long may it continue.

Editor’s Note: The playlist below is in no particular order.

Posted on December 23, 2020