Putting together end-of-year lists, you inevitably consider of what it all meant. Looking back over music in 2020, it’s easy to get fixated on everything that happened, but despite the terrible backdrop, this was another scintillating 12 months for Irish rap. This year’s collection of the finest homemade hip-hop is a mix of still improving artists who’ve been around a few years now and emerging talent. The result is that this list—the third such countdown I’ve done—is the most sonically diverse, and maybe even the best, edition yet. The rules are the same as always: its one track per artist, excluding features. Check out the 2019 and 2018 instalments and subscribe to the Spotify playlist I’ve put together for an even better experience.
20. God Knows: “Who’s Asking? (South West Allstars Remix)”/ “Who’s Asking? (East Coast Allstars Remix)”
If you think I’m going to rank one remix of “Who’s Asking” over the other and thereby declare a winner in this clash of the South-West and East Coast, you’re crazy. Listing the broad coalition of artists recruited by God Knows for both remixes would require a decent chunk of my time and your bandwidth. What truly matters is that when God calls a rapper up for a collaboration, they say yes. Here, he brought a perfect vision of crew rap to Ireland while furthering an emerging sense of regionalism that will inevitably lead to more sonic diversity in this nation’s hip-hop. You don’t have to declare a winner in the battle of South-West versus East because everyone wins.
19. Why-Axis: “Bloodstain”
After a quieter 2019, Why-Axis delved deeper into his strung-out electro-hip-hop style with new EP Moody Fuck. On “Bloodstain,” he skips over a jittery guitar line like it’s a game of vocal hopscotch. Anderson .Paak would approve. As for the video, the collage of clips from sessions (recorded, the video is eager to tell you, in pre-lockdown February) get you right in the heart and in the gut. This is essential “we’ve got to get this damn vaccine” viewing.
18. Gaptoof: “Dreamcatcher” featuring Kojaque
The flagship track from very fine album Looks Like Rain sees beatmaker Gaptoof team-up with his Soft Boy label head Kojaque. Over the looped soul vocal that showcases Gaptoof’s affinity for 2000s-style of sampling (think 9th Wonder or early Kanye), Kojaque returns to his school days: “Fuck throwing shade, I’m gonna beat the breaks off yer man like he owe me and still won’t pay/Like he owe me in school on break,” he spits before threatening to send his presumably bigger cousin after his enemy—a go-to ultimatum when you were a kid. Dublin sentimentally at its very finest.
17. Evans Junior: “Movie” featuring Offica
Over the murkiest of drill beats, Evans Junior envisions his life in widescreen. There’s a solid assist from Offica, whose deeper baritone is a natural counterpoint to Evans Junior’s more tuneful delivery. And when Offica says he makes music for, “Black Irish youths who get no recognition,” it’s hard not to consider this one an anthem.
16. Pat Lagoon: “Out the Globe” featuring Benzy
From Pat Lagoon’s very fine Box Room EP, “Out the Globe” takes us back to a period of the 2000s when a Spanish guitar riff seemed to be the most reached for implement in the pop-rap producer’s toolkit. Producer LHK remembers when The Neptunes were overlord of this landscape—you can picture Pharrell and Chad lining up the riff for Toni Braxton, Justin Timberlake et al. Lagoon’s extremely chilled, tuba-deep voice adds to the summer’s night atmosphere, while Cardiff rapper Benzy hops on a plane to “pay homage to my Celtic roots.” Nostalgia works best when it feels this effortless.
15. Alicia Raye: “Nobody” featuring Reggie
One of the most ambitious Irish music projects of 2020 was Alicia Raye’s Alphabet (Irish Collaborative Tape), a 26-song suite that saw the Cameroon-born, Drogheda-based rapper and singer join forces with different artists on every tracks. Erica Cody and Tolu Makay, Boy W1DR, and Celaviedmai were among those invited to ride shotgun, but my favourite track on the set was “Nobody.” Raye’s half-rapped, half-sung flow is nectar over a low-key drill beat, while the behemoth that is Reggie springs on the back end of the track like a bat out of hell. Talent loves company.
14. Hazey Haze: “Quarantine Love” featuring Robin Banks
Hazey Haze can do manic shit but it’s when he displays the qualities of his moniker—so hazy, he said it twice—the beardy Limerick rapper really reels you in. The liquid guitar licks, glassy whistles, and ambient vocal lines (courtesy of Robin Banks, also the song’s producer) of “Quarantine Love” captured the first breaths of what would prove to be an invisible summer. The atmosphere is calm as the gruff-voiced Hazey remembers pre-Covid days spent sipping cheap brandy and getting collared by Gardaí. “Quarantine Love” was released with a “video shot and edited using and old iPhone an some string” that captured the low-fi tactics artists deployed to keep creating during spring’s lockdown.
13. MuRli: “Till The Wheels Fall Off”
MuRli was inspired to write “Till the Wheels Fall Off” by an incident in Portuguese football. In February, Porto player Moussa Marega took the brave decision to walk off the pitch after suffering racist abuse from the fans of Vitoria Guimaraes, despite his teammates seemingly more interested in restraining the distressed Malian than offering solidarity. MuRli remembers the, “Monkey chants in the stadium” before focusing his ire on daily racism perpetrated by “Roaches on my timeline” and introducing a little humour: “Unlike my missus, I am not fine.” Africa-inspired instrumentation and rhythms are filtered through the lens of a hip-hop form the upbeat orchestration—a reminder that the most hard-hitting social justice songs don’t have to be ballads. As fate had it, the song dropped around the Black Lives Matters protests in Ireland, offering an insight into why this is a movement that has spread all over the western world.
12. Rikshaw: “Bounce”
More extremely catchy rap music from Rikshaw. The sound of a ticking clock sets the tone for “Bounce,” a song about keeping things moving and sliding from one experience to the next. Don’t expect Rikshaw to settle into one location, on just one drink, or with just one girl. Appropriately, he switches up his flow throughout, sounding as restless as a man on a pub crawl. With Rikshaw’s always slick mic skills, “Bounce” never looses its smoothness.
11. Rejjie Snow: “Cookie Chips” featuring MF DOOM & Cam Obi
Rejjie Snow returns to his roots. On “Cookie Chips,” he raps about getting older over a whimsical beat that’s in the vein of treasured early tracks like “Trumpets.” Snow has done a lot of experimenting since then, but when he tunes his voice to its silkiest setting, few rappers flow more fluidly. Then MF DOOM—whose image is tattooed on Snow’s leg—emerges from his subterranean lair to drop a classic DOOM verse, stuffing his bars with crazy internal rhyme patters: “Is it so compelling, the rebel with all the yelling?/Now it’s overwhelming, you're swelling melon, bruh, who you telling?” It’s fitting that this droll little tune about growing up sees boy team-up with his boyhood hero. It shows life is nothing if not filled with grand possibility.
10. Chuks & Rose: “Facts”
Two MCs from the AV9 crew show incredible chemistry, constantly passing the mic like back and forth like its a hot potato. Chuks references G Unit while describing violence as, “try’na drain man’s fluids.” Rose (sometimes known as Rose9) talks crème brûlée before swinging a blunt weapon at an enemy to “turn a man pieces like a mosaic.” This is drill music at its most uncompromising and electrifying.
09. Celaviedmai: “Questions” featuring Nealo & Alan McKee
The soulful “Questions” covers body dysmorphia and self-esteem. Celaviedmai describes feeling invisible to her beau, feeling like she’s always wrong, and feeling “lost in the chaos.” The hook encapsulates those notions of insecurity by revealing some of the questions that rattle around Celaviedmai’s head: “Do you I look good?,”Is my body right?” Autobiography in Irish rap is rarely this stark. In the hands of Celaviedmai, it’s transformed into something beautiful.
08. Nonzus Magnus: “I Need Her”
The sound of Nonzus Magnus’s heart breaking is a beat that screams and gyrates. “I Need Her” is a cacophonous thing, the Dubliner making the internal torment often sparked by a fracturing relationship sound like the descent into a vivid nightmare. Magnus’s larynx is cloaked in six layers of vocal effects, suggesting the erosion of his soul. You might find this tough going but there’s something universal about his very personal terror.
07. Nealo: “Let Your Dreams Collect Dust Until You’re Desperate” featuring Molly Sterling, Adam Garrett & Jehnova
The title track of Nealo’s October Year appeared on the inaugural 2018 edition of this list. That EP was the reinvention of a former hardcore artist as a hip-hop balladeer. Since then, it’s been a joy and a privilege to watch Nealo’s artistry bloom as he’s developed a style all of his own—a style that reached its final form on his excellent debut album All The Leaves Are Falling. There’s been successful deviations from the formula over the two years, but “Let Your Dreams Collect Dust Until You’re Desperate” is Nealo at his most comfortable. There’s the live instrumentation—Adam Garrett’s liquid guitar licks are pure satin on the ear—soulful hooks courtesy of Molly Sterling and Nealo himself, and the elegant prose as the rapper remembers an awkward youth and broken dreams. It’s a wrap by the time Jehnova shows up to drop a great Jehnova verse like it’s absolutely nothing.
06. 7th Obi: “Tesla Navigation”
7th Obi is in the conversation for most underrated rap artist—most underrated artist, period—on the island. His 2018 album Taxi Club deserves to find belated cult classic (so go get that) and this year saw another clutch of great singles to add to his impressive oeuvre. I easily could have selected a number of those tunes, but I’ve gone for “Tesla Navigation.” The bled-dry, digitized vocals are a soulful yet savage thing as Obi surfs the song’s tapping hi-hats. Like an Irish Lil Durk, 7th Obi’s robotized performance is extremely gripping. When he raps about having no reception on his phone, he sounds like he’s wandered into some kind of blank alternative universe, his voice bouncing off the void.
05. Jehnova: “ALL IN”
Sometime the hyperbolic statement is the right statement. So here it is: Jehnova has the potential to be the greatest Irish rapper of all time. He’s got the flow—a dense, multifaceted thing to be compared to that of Earl Sweatshirt. He’s got the pen game. And, of course, he’s got the audacity. It was tempting to select the laid back lounge rap sounds of “Weak Days” for this list, but I’ve gone for “ALL IN” simply because it’s a song that sees Jehnova smoothly rap over the kind of electronic riff that would make most emcees head straight for the studio door. The NUXSENSE member is clique’d up with DFL these days (Jafaris, Soule, Nealo) to help all due success come his way.
04. AC-130: “Reality Check”
AC-130 has been one of my favourite Irish drill rappers for a while now and I’ve know precisely zero about him. While his peers have started removing their face coverings in videos and allowing more biographical details to filter through, AC has opted to stay in the shadows. But, if a post I found on Facebook is accurate, we know he’s from Knocklyon. And you can give thanks to the suburb because one of its most exciting sons has made a pro-Dublin anthem. AC leans into his accent on the intro of “Reality Check” (“What’s the story bud, this is Dublin”) before unleashing a treatise that slaps down accusations that his verbiage is London-centric. Because they don’t generally do much rappin’-ass-rappin’, drill artists don’t always get all due praise for their mic skills, but AC’s flow is so sharp, so fluid, he could rap a man down off a ledge.
03. Denise Chaila: “Chaila”
In terms of mainstream presence, this is the most ubiquitous Irish rap song since “Horse Outside.” It appeared in TV ads, netted Denise Chaila a slot on The Late Late Show; stan accounts dedicated to her were set up on Twitter. What I love about “Chaila” is how the rising star followed the great tradition of rappers making singles announcing their rap moniker—Snoop Dogg’s “What’s My Name”, Eminem’s “My Name Is” etc—and turned it into a message about how making fun of a person’s name or expecting them to change it is a hurtful form of racism. And Chaila packaged that message in a chorus so catchy, parents filmed their small children singing along to it.
02. Jordan Adetunji: “Top Notch”
Jordan Adetunji put out a lot of new music this year that fell all over the stylistic map. But his best song saw him straight west coastin’. The artwork to “Top Notch” features a retro image of a sports car in front of a sunset that evokes memories of that old 1980s videogame Outrun. It’s nostalgia that is extremely on-point: the squelchy synths and thick bass of are a splash of classic California R&B and boogie music—music that would later filter into L.A. rap—fit for a seaside drive around at dusk on a hot summer’s day. The lyrics feel just as classic as Adetunji beats his chest and declares rap supremacy—whatever the top notch looks like, this song is there.
01. Reggie: “My Accent”
There’s a needless obsession with the accents in Irish rap. If your voice doesn’t have an instantly recognizable local flavour, then for some you’re too American, or too British, or too other. But artistry is not larynx deep and rappers are free to express themselves in whatever way they see fit. And by the way, accent policing sidesteps the natural phenomenon of Irish kids with heritage from other parts of the world being blessed with voices that shows evidence of that. The title of Reggie’s “My Accent” is undoubtedly pointed—from Dundalk but a disciple of London drill music, he’s probably swatted away 1,000 questions on his rap voice. Yet Reggie doesn’t take the topic head on: “All my people come from poverty, talking about accents is not important,” he asserts. The message is clear: don’t worry about his accent and enjoy one of Ireland’s most brilliant rising artists.
Reggie pays tribute to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters movement, as well as reveals his ambitions to make it big and represent his home nation globally: “I’m Irish and I wanna speak, ‘cause I wanna reach like Michael Jordan.” Yet drill rappers are ignored by the mainstream. They don’t get featured on RTE and their albums don’t get an iota of the attention they deserve. “My Accent” is a monster of a song—the best Irish rap song of the year—and if there’s any justice in 2021, Reggie will be treated with all due respect.
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