CREDENTIALS: Executive produced Nas’ King’s Disease, Big Sean’s Detroit 2, and Benny the Butcher’s Burden of Proof
It’s true to the weirdness of 2020 that the excellence of Hit-Boy’s year wasn’t defined by a smash hit like a “Niggas in Paris” or “Clique.” Hit-Boy’s impact came through sustained greatness and the kind of curatorial eye over high-profile projects that separates super-producers from beatmakers. He served as executive producer on three well-regarded projects: Nas’ King’s Disease, Big Sean’s Detroit 2, and Benny the Butcher’s Burden of Proof. All three albums displayed a skillful mesh of classic hip-hop elements with today’s glossy techniques, providing a captivating backdrop for established artists and a blueprint for spitters with dreams of mass appeal. As producer accomplishments go, that’s an unforgettable feat. His powerful trifecta is what makes him the Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive.
“I’d say 2020 was one of my best years, for sure,” Hit-Boy told Complex in an interview about the achievement. “Executive producing so many albums, working on so many different projects, just all the stuff I wanted to do when I was younger, but it really just took time to get into that role.” And now, he’s mastered it.
It’s been a gradual industry climb for Hit-Boy, who began the 2010s producing massive singles before facing industry setbacks along the way. But he was undeterred, and his production credits reflect a boundless work ethic throughout the last decade. For Hit-Boy, that work paid off with a huge three-month run in 2020. After releasing his album with Nas in August, one with Big Sean followed in September and one with Benny arrived in October. All three albums were rich, cohesive bodies of work. There’s been a lot of disdain for bloated albums of late, but Hit-Boy locked in as an executive producer and streamlined each project.
“I’ve always been able to tap in because I was such a big fan of albums,” he tells Complex. “Before I had a computer to make beats, I just had a CD player with a shoebox full of CDs. It’s something about the feeling of the whole project; it felt like I was watching a movie.” Those of a certain age remember the CD Walkman experience. Switching projects wasn’t as simple as a click. The CD experience made you more inclined to sit with an album, immersing yourself in its nuances. It’s fitting that a 33-year-old used to taking in albums as singular bodies of work could thread the fine line he did this year.
Hit-Boy’s skill was most evident on King’s Disease, a project that remedied one of the major knocks on Nas: his beat selection. Songs like “Blue Benz,” “Spicy,” and “27 Summers” displayed the rap icon in a sweet spot, spitting his ass off on tracks that fit onto contemporary playlists and mixes. Hit-Boy accomplished something similar with Benny the Butcher’s Burden of Proof. It’s no secret that Benny’s raps harken to the early ’00s heyday of Roc-A-Fella, and Hit-Boy leaned fully into the parallel throughout Burden of Proof, eschewing the beloved Griselda loops for his skillful chop on tracks like “Famous” and “One Way Flight.”
If those noteworthy accomplishments weren’t enough, he achieved another producer bucket list goal with Detroit 2. Not only was the album long-awaited, it was a sequel to a beloved Big Sean project. The pressure was on, and Hit-Boy played his part with beats like “Lucky Me,” “Deep Reverence,” and “Friday Night Cypher,” which allowed Sean (and friends) to get off bars and impress purists while still sounding modern. Hit-Boy had production credits on every track of Benny and Nas’ projects, but ceded some of the duties on Detroit 2. Yet, that’s where he showed his executive producer skills were no fluke, helping his close friend and fellow G.O.O.D. Music alumnus Big Sean curate a project that his fans regard as one of the best of 2020. “I just got in tune with who [Sean] was as a person, and that helped me play my role,” Hit-Boy said.
Hit-Boy isn’t the exuberant force of nature that other super-producers are; you won’t find him yelling to set off a track or ad-libbing verses. But his musical knowledge, technical skills, and willingness to play the right role earn him recognition as the best hip-hop producer of 2020.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Alchemist, Wheezy, Roc Marciano
The Alchemist had another banner year, crafting excellent projects with Freddie Gibbs, Boldy James, and Conway the Machine, as well as contributing to Jay Electronica, Westside Gunn, and Eminem projects. His and Gibbs’ work on Alfredo was so exceptional that they were nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy, which feels like a win for the entire community of gritty, esoteric MCs that the Grammy committee usually overlooks. Wheezy was everywhere last year, working with a who’s who of artists to lace their projects with booming, synth-heavy beats. He showed up on Best Rapper Alive Lil Baby’s My Turn with “We Should,” got beats on both Eternal Atake (“Urgency”) and LUV vs. the World 2 (“Strawberry Peels), and connected with artists like Gunna, Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Future, and DaBaby. Roc Marciano wasn’t as prolific as the other producers we honored, but his work on Stove God Cooks’ breakout Reasonable Drought, as well as his own Mt. Marci project, was impressive enough to land him on the list. What he lacks in quantity, he makes up for in quality, turning obscure samples into soulful, captivating compositions commanding your favorite spitters’ best efforts. —Andre Gee