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The 15 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021

In 2021, hip-hop continued to be as plentiful as it was multifarious.

Doja Cat
Photo: David LaChapelle

In 2021, hip-hop continued to be as plentiful as it was multifarious—a vehicle for both shining a spotlight on the world’s ills and celebrating personal triumphs. The year’s best rap albums took many forms, with our list encompassing elite cultural figures (Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator), new artists coming into their own (Little Simz and Bladee), and scrappy strivers just trying to be heard (Mother Nature and Ka). Some MCs, like Doja Cat, are reaching new heights, while others, like Vince Staples, continue to do what they do with precision and consistency. Self-sufficiency and drawing strength from within defined many of the albums on this list, though collaboration was also vital. And while the streaming era invites a certain loquacious bloat, the best rappers kept it concise, knowing what they wanted to say and sometimes delivering it in 30 minutes or less. Charles Lyons-Burt

Honorable Mentions: Farruko, La 167; IDK, USee4Yourself; Lil Baby & Lil Durk, The Voice of the Heroes; Lil Nas X, Montero; Mach-Hommy, Pray for Haiti; Tkay Maidza, Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3; Topaz Jones, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma; Aminé, TwoPointFive; Yeat, Up 2 Më; YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Sincerely, Kentrell



Fuck It Up

Basside, Fuck It Up

Artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, and Doja Cat have ushered in a glorious era of women committing their sexual demands to rap verse. Underground Miami duo and childhood best friends Que Linda and Caro Loka, a.k.a. Basside, do their mainstream peers proud with Fuck It Up, six tracks recorded around 2016 with late producer Sophie. Linda and Caro spend most of the EP exploring the transactional, instant gratification of sex and relationships in the digital age. This is most pronounced on “Swipe,” wherein the two rappers each detail their horny-but-moody mindsets before firing off pithy reasons for swiping left or right through a dating app: “Your girl say she bougie/She can’t even spell it/But damn I could smell it!” To further distinguish the project, Linda is straight and Caro is queer, so their verses switch up the pair’s divulging desires from men to women, respectively, which, along with the in-your-face ad-libs and Sophie’s careening beats, ensures that there’s never an idle or redundant moment. Lyons-Burt



The Fool

Bladee, The Fool

Some of the most strangely affecting hip-hop of the year comes from Benjamin Reichwald, a.k.a. Bladee. The Swedish cloud-rap pioneer (and member of the Drain Gang collective) walks us through his personal journey while riding the line between ironic distance and emotional sincerity on The Fool, his fifth studio album in as many years. Reichwald raps and sings in a way that’s often affectless yet also sweet, over icy synths and chilly keys that point toward early-2000s electro and techno. The album’s narrative follows Bladee’s efforts to reconcile an ownership of his fate and life’s direction with a tendency to infantilize himself, especially with regard to his lovers (“I’m a child in your arms,” he says on multiple songs). Full of flat-toned, deadpan absurdism and beats enveloped in the morass of the digital ether, The Fool is a project fit for our post-everything era. Lyons-Burt



Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep

Mykki Blanco, Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep

No one was nervier and more bodacious-sounding in hip-hop this year than Mykki Blanco, and the rapper’s confidence is a source of never-ending delight on her long-awaited second album, Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep. She doesn’t take shit from anyone, be it misbehaving partners, hecklers on the street, or, perhaps, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, who took years to pay Blanco for her contribution to Teyana Taylor’s 2018 song “W.T.P.” She struts with self-possession across nine funky, exultant tracks, rapping in punchy rhymes and duetting with perfectly selected, soulful guest artists like Jamila Woods, Kari Faux, and Blood Orange. Chockfull of stylistic flourishes, Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep is an ode to setting boundaries and upholding one’s high standards and expectations, and Blanco accomplishes this with hilarious and magnetic self-importance. Lyons-Burt



Planet Her

Doja Cat, Planet Her

Like any of the albums from Rihanna’s unbeatable run in the late 2000s to early ’10s, Doja Cat’s Planet Her is stacked with potential hits. The album also compares to those of Rihanna—who Doja namechecks on the hypnotic opener “Woman”—in its fusion of pop, R&B, and reggae, sewn together with sparkling production. But like Bad Bunny and Drake, Doja raps as skillfully as she sings: Many of the songs here begin with silky vocals and then merge with ease into motormouthed bars. What is singularly her own is her intonation, delivered as if with a scheming grin, and the filthy, candid explorations of sex and desire, rendered with startling veracity on a song like “You Right.” Planet Her sees Doja Cat creating her own ecosystem, thick with hooky melodies and sultry attitude. Lyons-Burt



Haram

Armand Hammer & The Alchemist, Haram

The nature of repurposing found recordings means that sampling is a medium that can provoke both life-affirming nostalgia and death-embracing doom. The grisly Haram, a collaboration between New York City underground hip-hop duo Armand Hammer and producer the Alchemist, decidedly elicits the latter. In many ways a critique of the legacy of slavery and colonialism, Haram possesses a manic, catastrophic atmosphere, almost as if the Alchemist were attempting to distill those crimes against humanity into sound. Throughout, the album’s 14 tracks unravel into convoluted tangles of disembodied voices, discordant jazz piano, and droning synths. Rappers Billy Woods and Elucid have mastered a stream-of-consciousness lyrical delivery that often prioritizes images, sensation, and rhythmic tension above easy comprehension. The group also turns their attention to the taboo, the immoral, and the inhumane: Where one’s first instinct might be to look away in disgust or horror, they would rather scrutinize, poke, and prod, and exaggerate the taboo. On “Indian Summer,” Woods recalls moving back to the U.S. from Africa, painting a hellish landscape out of the racism encountered in American suburbia and declaring, without the slightest hesitation, “I swore vengeance in the seventh grade/Not on one man, the whole human race/I’m almost done, God be praised.” Sophia Ordaz



Elephant in the Room

Mick Jenkins, Elephant in the Room

In a genre that often favors grandstanding and embellishment, Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins is focused on integrity and plainspokenness. “Don’t come through preaching, just practice whatever you was gon’ preach,” he instructs on “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” the opening song on his third album, Elephant in the Room. Throughout the album, he lucidly describes the ins and outs of his daily existence and interests, like weed, sports, and friends, delivering his lyrics with an assured, present demeanor. On “Stiff Arm,” Chi-town activist Ayinde Cartman voices the guiding ethos of the album over a lovely piano riff: “Our existence is the elephant in every boardroom/How we larger than life and lurking in the shadow?…We easier to muzzle when we made to feel alone.” Its instrumentals sound like live accompaniment, even though they aren’t, with diffuse guitar noodling and cymbal-heavy drums on “Scottie Pippen” and a flighty, Thundercat-like bass line on “Gucci Tried to Tell Me.” The persona that Jenkins embodies may be an everyman, but he’s no slouch as a wordsmith, each descriptor carefully chosen, and each line melting into the next. Lyons-Burt



A Martyr’s Reward

Ka, A Martyr’s Reward

The sixth album from underground Brownsville rapper Kaseem “Ka” Ryan is a softly ticking bomb. Laden with intricate wordplay, each of Ka’s verses contains barbed missives, locked and loaded with the precision of a seasoned wordsmith: “Since seared by sin, all I ever been is sincere/If you hear I’m on the premises, every premise severe.” Keeping with his signature style, Ka raps over a doomsday canvas of sustained synths, funereal piano, and little-to-no percussion, centering his smokey voice as each song’s guiding rhythm. He condemns culture vultures (“I Need All of That”) and the racism embedded in the prison industrial complex (“I Notice”), and interrogates how the roles of artist and martyr in society and how they overlap. On “We Living/Martyr,” Ka cynically remarks that instead of reinvigorating social movements, the reward of a martyr may only amount to the end of his life: “No more suffering.” Ordaz



Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

With Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, rapper Little Simz offers personal confessions and societal diagnoses, homing in specifically on the injustices that women routinely endure. The album’s instrumentation is more stripped down than on 2019’s Grey Area, functioning primarily as a complement to Little Simz’s rhymes. On “Woman,” amid crisp beats and synth hooks, she portrays various women, all of whom command respect in their own ways. “I Love You, I Hate You” opens with a musical flourish reminiscent of a Golden Age Hollywood film score, with Little Simz voicing her ambivalence about her father. On “Standing Ovation,” she asks herself, “Why the desperate need for an applause?,” her voice framed by roiling strings. When she proclaims on the album’s closing track, “Miss Understood,” that “there’s a bigger picture God is painting,” Little Simz comes full circle, expressing gratitude that she, like all of us, is part of a higher order. John Amen



Sznz

Mother Nature & Boathouse, Sznz

On their fourth album, Sznz, Klevah Knox and T.R.U.T.H. trade high-energy verses that vibrate with optimism, dreaming up visions of personal and global futures that work against toxic forces and aim to instate systems of altruism. But they still spit with levity and a sense of humor: “Is we politician or bitchin’, I don’t really know,” Knox muses on “Goodiez.” The Chicago duo’s character sketching and fully fleshed perspectives are some of the most imaginative persona-building on any hip-hop release this year, with the former rapping as if she has divine powers and the latter equipped with earthbound survival mechanisms. The songs on Sznz concern growth and empowerment without ever being corny or didactic, and producer Boathouse provides them with sturdy, viable beats on which they verifiably go off. Lyons-Burt



The House Is Burning

Isaiah Rashad, The House Is Burning

With The House Is Burning, Isaiah Rashad made his triumphant return to music in 2021 after a half-decade hiatus. Following a stint in rehab, the rapper offers up an album whose songs sound haunted with the ghosts of his past: He ruminates on the temptations of old habits but immediately undercuts their allure with what he now knows as their deadly potential. The beats are dreamlike, as if they’re illustrating Rashad’s demons run amok in his subconscious, and his vocal approach is fittingly dazed but scared-straight. The contradictions don’t stop there, with cravings alongside reminders of self-destruction, and the general ghostliness contrasted with tactile sonic details like the insertion of a cassette or the crackle of kindling. Rashad’s voice, too, can have it both ways, alternately gravelly (usually when rapping the verses) and ethereal (when multi-tracked as he sings the choruses). This amounts to an album that traffics in life’s messiness and tragic uncertainty: Even though The House Is Burning includes moments of newfound self-understanding, Rashad still finds himself regressing and slipping. Lyons-Burt



Vince Staples

Vince Staples, Vince Staples

Throughout his eponymous fourth album, Vince Staples keenly draws contrasts between his upbringing and the life he now enjoys. At his best, he peerlessly interrogates his anxieties with a bone-chilling sense of morbidity: “Hangin’ on them corners, same as hangin’ from a ceiling fan/When I see my fans/I’m too paranoid to shake their hands,” he confesses on “Sundown Town.” The album’s production is the least showy of any of the rapper’s projects to date. Handled almost entirely by Kenny Beats, it’s sturdy but unobtrusive, favoring slower BPMs to match Staples’s less hurried pace and allowing the snares to smack resoundingly. Composed of two-minute fragments that function as snapshots of his dim view of humanity, Vince Staples is another brief but trenchant effort from the rapper, his leisurely approach suggesting a newfound confidence. Lyons-Burt



Call Me If You Get Lost

Tyler, the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost

Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost continues the recent strides that the rapper-producer has made in production finesse—his beats are immaculate without being showy, replete with horns and shuffling drums—but marries that to the immediacy of his early work. Across 16 varied tracks, Tyler Baudelaire (his chosen alter ego this go-round) addresses race, fame, wealth, and love in clever, dense verses full of humorous asides and conflicted resolutions. It’s also easily one of the most purely fun listens of the year, with a bevy of ecstatic guest spots, mixtape staple DJ Drama interjecting puffed-up commentary after every other line, and Tyler tossing off some of the best rap boasts in some time (“Got so much self-respect, I wash my hands ‘fore I piss”). The MC morphs his delivery in so many different ways here, offering up skulking mutters, brash declarations, and soft croons. Lyons-Burt



Donda

Kanye West, Donda

On Donda, Kanye manages to dramatize his struggles with bipolar disorder and his commitments to his faith with both more coherency and dynamism than ever before. This is arguably the most vulnerable and broken that the rapper has allowed himself to appear on record. The instrumental choices follow suit, with Kanye and his collaborators, for example, stripping down “God Breathed” to just an undulating bassline and menacing choral baritones. Likewise, the swarm of demonic chirps that emerge behind Kanye’s vocal on “Heaven and Hell” as he discusses the devil are massive, twisted, and unsettling. If previously there was a sense that Kanye’s foregrounding of his Christianity, something that was always an undercurrent in his work, would stifle his artistry, Donda emphatically disproves that notion. Lyons-Burt



Rich Shooter

Young Nudy, Rich Shooter

As evidenced by Metro Boomin’s frequent promotion of Young Nudy’s new releases on Instagram, Nudy is your favorite producer’s favorite rapper. This is for two reasons. One is that the Atlanta artist, who pedals a hybrid of trap and gangsta rap, consistently scores atmospheric beats that feel tailor-made to his needs. The second is that he does a great job of convincing you he isn’t doing this for the glory: On “Old School,” he raps “Y’all n*ggas…wanna be known so bad/Chasin’ shit for clout/That ain’t what I’m about.” Rich Shooter calls upon Nudy’s best-proven recent collaborators, sticking almost entirely throughout the 20 tracks to his in-house crew COUPE and 20Rocket, and Pi’erre Bourne to supply beats dotted with little disturbances that sound like distress signals. Nudy makes optimum use of these canvases, filling the space ably with his soft-spoken but commanding flow and inimitable drawl. Lyons-Burt



Slime Language II

Young Stoner Life, Young Thug & Gunna, Slime Language 2 (Deluxe)

Seemingly everyone in Young Thug’s orbit features in some way on the 31-song, 98-minute deluxe edition of Slime Language 2, including friends-in-high-places Drake and Travis Scott, longtime right-hand man Lil Duke, up-and-comers Lil Keed and Yak Gotti, even his eight-year-old daughter, billed as MEGO. But the album’s prime attractions are Thug and Gunna, a star fashioned in the former’s image who might now be more famous than his mentor. The two exercise a fantastic interplay on standouts like “Slam the Door” and “Diamonds Dancing,” with Gunna taking over the chorus from Thug at the end of the latter track before the two joyfully harmonize in unison. Despite its length, the album is well-paced and sequenced, breaking up the high-profile, high-energy cuts with measured, low-key material like “Real” and “Trance.” Slime Language 2 employs the crew’s go-to producers Wheezy, Turbo, and London on da Track to cook up ornate, brassy beats for “Pots N Pans” and “Warrior” so that even the lesser talents featured on the album have superior tools to work with. Slime Language 2 doesn’t reinvent Atlanta trap music, but it’s a good reminder of Young Thug and company’s continued dominance and vitality in the genre. Lyons-Burt

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