Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr / NPR / Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr / NPR / Getty Images
In 2020, there were many ways to understand the year in music; this week, we're considering four. It's been a long journey for women to get their critical and commercial dues in hip-hop, but the past year came replete with glimpses of progress. First, the facts: For a brief period in May, four Black women—Nicki Minaj alongside Doja Cat on "Say So" and Beyoncé alongside Megan Thee Stallion on "Savage" — occupied the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100. That two-week span marked historic moments for Nicki, Doja and Megan, all of whom scored their first No. 1s, and for "Say So," which became the first single by two female rappers to reach the top of the chart. Cardi B later joined their ranks with her fabulously naughty collaboration with Megan, "WAP." Of course, these measures and milestones fail to capture the dynamism of women in rap as a whole, a renaissance of sorts which has only seemed to grow in enthusiasm and breadth since Cardi's first historic run in 2017. To know what tomorrow sounds like, one need only listen to the women in rap today. They are creating scenes within scenes that speak to and embody the manifold experiences of people who exist across the spectrums of gender and sexual orientation, all while fueling the sounds popularized by artists in and outside of hip-hop. Unbeholden to the narrow representations of old, these 23 songs represent but a handful of the women in rap who left their mark on 2020. —Briana Younger
Armani Caesar, "Drill A RaMA" ft. Benny the Butcher
Even surrounded by the hip-hop heavy hitters of Griselda, Armani Caesar holds her own and then some with crafty technical prowess and unassailable aplomb. On "Drill a RaMA," from her label debut, THE LIZ, the Buffalo native trades lines with labelmate Benny the Butcher before launching into a slippery flex flow that is as much an exercise in presence as it is skill. She knows her way around gritty classicist production (see: "Countdown"), but she's just as compelling when she's poppin' pussy over trapped out 808s (see: "Yum Yum"). Her stylistic pliability only further highlights her lyrical savvy — better get you a rapper who can do both. —Briana Younger
Audrey Nuna, "Damn Right"
Endorsed by BLACKPINK's Rosé and reminiscent of eccentric wordsmith Tierra Whack, Audrey Nuna proved she's one to watch this year. On "Damn Right," Nuna turns bars into knives as she slices loose tongues, cutting through superficial flexes and gossip. She raps effortlessly on packed, lively verses that demand full attention before switching it up with sweetened choruses. She sings, playful and electric, "everybody talkin' s*** and they d*** right," and suddenly, I'm obsessed. —LaTesha Harris
Bbymutha, "Roaches Don't Die"
On "Roaches Don't Die," BbyMutha raps with an unyielding, breezy tenacity that elevates lines like "Dearly departed / Kill these b****** while I rest in peace / I ain't even took my bonnet off" from thrilling lyric to lethal mantra. Unafraid to deliver a face-burning read without a second thought, the Chattanooga-born rapper maximizes the real estate of a spiked melody and a menacing bassline to support the kind of candid intimacy typically reserved for a group chat. Her self-assured battle armor is fortified with human-sized vulnerabilities, well-suited to slip onto your shoulders (and tongue) when your own reserves are running low. —Melissa Vincent
BIA has been on the come-up since 2016, but she officially claimed her stake in the rap game after collaborating with Russ on 2019's Rihanna-approved "Best on Earth." The Boston-born rapper continues to cement her presence with bangers like "Skate." The single shows BIA at her most confident as she, well, skates over an ice-cold trap melody. As she continues to ascend, she makes it clear that her success is all her doing: "I made it out the mud, only me I wanna thank." —Bianca Gracie
Bree Runway, "GUCCI" ft. Maliibu Miitch
A talent unbound by genre and only tethered to excess, giving everything and beyond, British artist Bree Runway's ability to rap, sing, dance and deliver is a full-package reminiscent of a lost generation of performers — a Missy Elliott, Madonna, Rihanna hybrid who puts the "star" in popstar. On "GUCCI" she partners with Bronx bombshell Maliibu Miitch for a braggadocio-filled, experimental rap record with an equally experimental visual to match. Signaling both the Italian fashion house and her state of mind and being, the pair are, simply put, high-quality and highly-coveted. The track is a testament to the tenacity of Bree Runway, an artist who can do and be anything the art needs her to. —Ivie Ani
Chika's refreshing brand of transparency — in addition to her impressive flow — has made the Alabama-bred rapper one of the year's most essential voices. On "BALENCIES," a cut from her major label debut EP Industry Games, the Grammy-nominated rapper ruminates on the ins and outs of her newfound fame by putting the ghosts of her past in dialogue with her present and future lives. Over a thumping choral beat, she tackles her demons, such as egoism and fluctuating mental health, with sincerity, pondering how she's gonna win when she ain't right within. By keepin' it 100 with herself, Chika becomes a beacon for listeners dealing with struggles of their own. —J'na Jefferson
City Girls, "Rodeo"
Talking that talk times two, City Girls' highly anticipated sophomore album, City On Lock, would have made perfect party music if we were not in a global pandemic. Even without clubs, "Rodeo" is a gem, as JT and Yung Miami assert their right to have erotic experiences, explaining them in detail over pounding drums. It's filled with quotable one-liners — "I'm young and I'm sexy and reckless" JT declares in the opening verse — that uphold the tradition of Black women using rap to conceive of and construct their sexuality, and it's the first thing I'm playing when it's safe to be outside again. —Nadirah Simmons
After her brief hiatus last year, cupcakKe's "Discounts" displays how the Chicago emcee got her groove back. Through lightning-fast witticisms about money, sex and status — accented by a sprightly flute looping throughout the track — the 23-year-old re-emerges as an upgraded version of herself, self-assured and more audacious than ever. Several labels reached out to work with cupcakKe following the rousing response to the single, and while she remains unsigned for now, if "Discounts" is any indication, she's stepped into her destiny as a force not to f*** with. —J'na Jefferson
In April, Baltimore's Deetranada dropped a scorching, attention-grabbing verse on "BRAIN," a standout cut from Robb Bank$'s No Rooftops 2 that sampled N.E.R.D.'s song of the same name. Two months later, she brought that fearless energy to a solo effort, releasing a track celebrating her 19th birthday, aptly titled "19." On it, the rapper contemplatively reflects on the life she's lived, while also candidly flexing about what sets her far apart from her contemporaries. —Kiana Fitzgerald
DreamDoll, "Ah Ah Ah" ft. Fivio Foreign
As drill music dominates New York, the artists on the periphery of the city's current rap scene continue to find their place within the genre and beyond it. Bronx rapper DreamDoll makes a subtle foray into the movement with assistance from Brooklyn drill heavyweight Fivio Foreign on "Ah Ah Ah." Produced by Dizzy Banko, the track marks a Bronx and Brooklyn connection bound by the streets' argot of choice, unintelligible to tongues outside of NY's borders. DreamDoll's party bars became the vox populi for New York baddies held back by a quarantine summer of clubless nights, but "Ah Ah Ah" did more than provide scripture for Instagram captions; it's helped solidify DreamDoll within the vanguard of new New York rap. —Ivie Ani
Flo Milli, "Like That B****"
As summer anthems go, 20-year-old Flo Milli's "Like That B****," released on her debut mixtape, Ho, Why Is You Here?, is of the fight song variety, the kind sorely needed in the twilight of this particular year. Coming out of the corner wearing her hometown of Mobile, Flo Milli locates herself amongst her predecessors and contemporaries, Southern and otherwise, with playful ease. "Like That B****" is both announcement and demonstration aided by a J. White Did It beat proudly signifying on mid-2000s trap crunk. Flo Milli cartwheels through your favorite rappers' favorite cadences, delivering a ready, rowdy South that won't stop punching. —Zandria F. Robinson
Junglepussy continues to be the funniest one in the room. Flippant yet intense, she acts out lovestruck infatuation on "Telepathy," falling into an obsessive spiral to indulge in fantasies of a man she knows she should drop. With shameless honesty, she threatens her partner with affection and begs him to read her mind. Her vulnerabilities are obscured by a repetitive, bird-like, record-scratching beat and monotone delivery. Still, lines like "this coochie a gold mine" and "my ooch wally had you wildin' full time" prove that even with a debilitating crush, her signature bravado and wit reign supreme. —LaTesha Harris
Ivorian Doll, "Rumours"
The self-proclaimed "Queen of Drill" made her mark with a deliciously unrepentant breakthrough track, brilliantly inverting the misogynistic concept of a "body count" into an extended metaphor for a different method of violence. Complete with a video situated in a high school to further cement the sophomoric nature of attacking a woman's rise through slutshaming and unfounded allegations, Ivorian Doll's rhythmic banter coupled with her skills on the mic established her as a force majeure with a fresh perspective in a subculture dominated by men. —Shamira Ibrahim
Ivy Sole, "NAME IT"
2020 has been an opening of wounds many of us didn't know were there, but Ivy Sole's "NAME IT," off their latest Southpaw EP, is a balm for the unrelenting strife. Outside of holding space for a breadth of experiences, the Charlotte-born, Philly-bred rapper and singer is able to achieve a specificity in their work that mirrors that of the best songwriters. Where plenty of music allows us to escape to other worlds, "NAME IT" asks us to move inward: "How can I hate the place that I came from? / How can I hate what I wanna change?" Following in the tradition of icons like D'Angelo and peers like Jamila Woods, their mellow merging of genres asks us to see where we come from even when it's most difficult. —Clarissa Brooks
Jocelyn "Jozzy" Donald is one of the 2010s most prolific songwriters of R&B, hip-hop and pop music, credited and uncredited. The Memphis native's solo work, like October's five-track EP, Soul Therapy: Apartment 215, is a window into the quotidian beauty of the genius's interior voice and life. "Pleasantville," the EP's lead track, is a dreamy, muted love story in sound and color that echoes this year's quiet, intimate, reflective and enclosed but sometimes wide-open spaces — wherever, however and whenever we were blessed to find them. —Zandria F. Robinson
Over a flurry of sonic influences, courtesy of frequent Megan Thee Stallion producer DJ Chose, Houston emcee KenTheMan invokes the flavors of current and past women rappers as she weaves a captivating aural tapestry of her very own. With a generous sampling of Trina's carnal 2008 single "Look Back at Me" as her foundation, KenTheMan picks up where Trina left off, priding herself on sexual autonomy, freedom and self-empowerment. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Mulatto, "In n Out" ft. City Girls
Mulatto is known for having some of the naughtiest lyrics among her peers, and what better way to raise the bar than by teaming up with the City Girls? From Mulatto's debut album, Queen of Da Souf, Atlanta meets Miami for the cheeky "In n Out." Don't mistake this for the beloved fast food chain — these ladies are serving up s***-talking ("30 Glock in my Dior, I dare a b**** to run down"), an earworm chorus and references to this summer's infamous entanglement. Mulatto may not have revealed what's in that "Big Latto Sauce", but whatever the secret ingredients, they're pushing her closer to Southern rap domination. —Bianca Gracie
Noname, "Song 33"
In a year where Black neighborhoods were being crippled by state-sponsored violence — from the pandemic negligence to the police — the role of celebrities in the Black liberation movement has increasingly been called into debate. Noname, on her end, has largely chosen to shift her platform away from music to learning and amplifying, a position that has at times put her at odds with peers such as J. Cole, who expressed his misgivings on the track "Snow on Tha Bluff." "Song 33" not only served as a rebuttal to his commentary but as a call-to-action to the Black bourgeoisie within the movement embedded in sharp lyricism; she declares a "new vanguard" in the delicate matrix of arts, politics and performance. —Shamira Ibrahim
ppcocaine, "Hugh Hefner"
ppcocaine's single "Hugh Hefner" could best be described as a hard-edged sugar rush — a never-ending angsty ride that leaves you ready to fight. The LA-based rapper, who met her stylistic match with a recent guest verse on Rico Nasty's "Smack A B**** Remix," is the newest star of the pop-punk rap niche at the age of 19 and is already shifting what we think stardom can look like. Her screamo and high pitched tone over hard 808s call to mind the days of Kelis and is a needed contrast to the yesteryears of surface-level Black girl magic. —Clarissa Brooks
Rico Nasty, "OHFR?"
Even with women enjoying a new wave of recognition in rap, Rico Nasty still finds a way to crash against what's current. The DMV rapper crafts electro-welded chaos on "OHFR?," the anarchist calling card off her long-awaited debut album, Nightmare Vacation. As the inventor of sugar trap, reveling in dichotomy has always been Rico's strong suit, but the rasp in her tone and sarcasm in her bars cut deeper than ever thanks to some manic punk production courtesy of 100 gecs' Dylan Brady and more self-assured gumption behind every syllable. —Sidney Madden
On Su'lan's "B.T.H.N.," the Oakland duo trade quips atop a sample of an iconic viral video (courtesy of producer Drew Banga) to create a song full of the rightful fury Black women need to hear and express. The pair are ready to spar, letting naysayers and haters know they can be met with the Draco or their fists to "break that hoe nose" as they take up the kind of hyper-aggressive space in the realm of rage rap that's so often only afforded to men. It's as rowdy as it is freeing — not to mention a hard beat to dance to. —Nadirah Simmons
Sydanie, "purple carousel"
When it comes to love, Sydanie poses an urgent inquiry: How does one locate the balance between desire and volatility? On "purple carousel," the Toronto-based rapper and producer explores potential answers with razor sharp bars, teeming with cosmic introspection and executed with the caliber of skill you'd bet money on. Over a mosaic of metallic drum & bass, laced with flourishes of relentless breakcore (multi-instrumentalist composer and Club Quarantine co-founder Casey MQ holds production credits), Sydanie builds a case for pleasure with finely spun precision, pinpointing her boundaries and holding herself with compassion in order to yield its healing properties. —Melissa Vincent
Yung Baby Tate, "I Am" ft. Flo Milli
Yung Baby Tate's new EP After The Rain is a technicolor ball of pop music that finds perfect harmony in sultry R&B and vibrant hip-hop. The latter peaks on the effervescent "I Am," a charming collaboration with Flo Milli and producer Slade Da Monsta who laces the pair with an elastic beat that bounces and thumps in turns. The two rappers, who have alarmingly perfect synergy, fill the track with wall-to-wall positive affirmations — "I am healthy, I am wealthy, I am rich, I am that b****" goes the hook — to give mirror work a hell of an anthem. —Briana Younger