The 25 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021
We don't talk about the sound of rap anymore, because there isn't one. Or two. Or twelve. The map is more like a metaverse, a malleable collection of regional sounds, virtual alliances and divergent ideologies feeding off and fueling the globe. And that's just the stuff we pump and dump stateside. Rap is a genre in name only, unbound by any agreed-upon convention or creative aesthetic. Maybe we quit pretending that matters anymore. Bigger fish to freaking fry. Between the pandemic, the 'pocalypse and the unrelenting politics. What we need to do is stick together as a people(!). But it feels like hip-hop is finally unified in its sense of disunity.
Now what we have here is a vast array of fill-in-the-blank: Death and defiance. Erotic power and provocation. Black joy and pain. Bombast and experimentation. Philosophy and self-liberation. A whole lotta soul searching. And this is just the shortlist. Now that "underground" is ambiguous and "mainstream" is approaching meaninglessness, there's less reason to feel beholden to anything but choosing your own adventure. This is easily the best of 2021. Or the worst, depending on your preference. —Rodney Carmichael
Note: Albums designated with an asterisk have been previously covered in NPR Music's Best Music of 2021 series.
42 Dugg, Free Dem Boyz
42 Dugg's fourth mixtape begins with the automated voice familiar to anyone who's been on the receiving end of a collect prison call. Over the next 49 minutes, the Detroit native holds listeners captive with the pain, pleas and spoils that could only come from a halflife of hustling and hard time served. And when your homies are still locked up and gone, what better way to cry freedom than dedicating a song ("Free Merey," "Judge Please," "Free Woo," "Free Skeet," "Free Me"). Free Dem Boyz is the testament of an artist who began shaping his craft as a teenager in solitary confinement, delivered through strained vocals and a high-pitched, melodic flow so hypnotizing it almost belies his lived blues. —Rodney Carmichael
Baby Keem, The Melodic Blue*
When you're the baby cousin of Kendrick Lamar, arguably the best MC of his generation, and you're trying to make your own name in the rap game, the stakes of show and prove go up exponentially. Luckily for Baby Keem, he's been laying the groundwork for this moment for years. Decadently experimental compared to his breakout mixtape, DIE FOR MY BITCH, Keem's 2021 debut album The Melodic Blue finds the 21-year-old rapper officially staking his claim to define next-gen rap stardom.
While TikTok-era consumerism now trims songs to mere seconds or flips them for comedic relief, two-phone Keem comes through with so much strangely intriguing, flow-switching presence on each track that it challenges the audience to lean forward, do some extra research and listen closer. Keem commands attention over triumphant horns on "family ties," spitting so exasperatedly, it's as if he's physically leaping over the trappings of his protégé status and rap royalty lineage: "Avoiding the trends and duckin' the hoes / I'm duckin' the loonies that come with the shows / I'm grateful to Man-Man, he opened up doors / A bunk on the tour bus to come and compose." Trading bars with Kendrick over three beat changes in four minutes, Keem passes the litmus test for compelling delivery and wordplay on a track that's since earned the rising talent his first Grammy nominations in the categories of best rap performance and best rap song, alongside a best new artist nod. —Sidney Madden
Pi'erre Bourne, The Life of Pi'erre 5
Typically, you wouldn't want a rapper with bars like Pi'erre Bourne's anywhere near a mic. "Like she doing chores, yeah, she gon' vacuum me," goes one line on "HULU." But when Pi'erre's saying it, it's almost always unintentionally hilarious. Best known for his work with Playboi Carti, which stripped the hip-hop of mid-decade Atlanta to its cold, hard bones, he's maybe the most consequential new producer of the last half-decade, but when he starts rapping, you can't help cracking a smile. "Like my Playstation, girl you know I'm 4 you," he croons in full force on "4U." The Life Of Pi'erre 5 is full of this clunky, cartoonish mode of writing, which he pulls off in Auto-Tuned R&B runs. You're mainly here for the beats — some of the best and strangest you'll hear all year — but the raps will get stuck in your head, too. —Mano Sundaresan
Jack Harlow, Thats What They All Say
"WHATS POPPIN," Jack Harlow's gargantuan sextuple-platinum breakout single, could have swallowed the new artist before he carved out an identity for himself. Instead, his debut album Thats What They All Say embraces the challenge of newfound successes and transforms it into a catalyst for thoughtful ruminations on his hometown, love and growing up. Released at the tail end of 2020, Thats What They All Say nimbly meanders from sultry R&B-inflected midtempos ("Already Best Friends," "Luv Is Dro") to urgent reflections and stories to tell ("Baxter Avenue," "Creme"). Jack's smoky tone carries a warmth that brightens up the darkest of basslines; harnessing his hoarseness, he flips between seduction and vulnerability on a whim. Harlow wears his inspiration on his sleeve, as calls to Drake's signature sound prove unmistakable, but his singular charisma anchors the music in an arena of his own. —Kyle Denis
Songs from USEE4YOURSELF, IDK's sophomore album, appear on my Spotify Wrapped playlist. That's because this record is full of genuine great music — well developed arrangements, artistic verses and lyrics that speak truth from his heart. With drops and pockets of space derived from the go-go genre, that's a representation of where he's from: the Washington, D.C. suburb of Prince George's County, Md. You can also hear a captivating party vibe layered with chocolate grooves that sound better on each subsequent listen. Short for the contradictory "Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge," IDK had a phenomenal year with the release of this project, a deluxe version, an exciting multi-city tour and a music business seminar he taught at Harvard University last summer. Watching him grow over the years has been really inspiring and his continued success is sure to prosper. —Suraya Mohamed
Injury Reserve, By the Time I Get to Phoenix*
When Injury Reserve emcee Stepa J. Groggs died last year, the group found itself without an essential member right in the middle of recording an album. On the resulting record, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the experimental rap outfit channels deep-seated grief and uncertainty into a claustrophobic hellscape. By the Time I Get to Phoenix is packed with pure noise, as if it's going to self-destruct at any minute, and death oozes throughout the record. But past the cacophony there's an ever-present rawness — in the wake of terror, there's potential to find pure and beautiful catharsis. —Reanna Cruz
J. Cole, The Off-Season
There's much to love about an artist who's self-aware in a rap game where perception is reality, and J. Cole knows where he stands: Top three, and you can't argue with that. This has afforded him the opportunity to create freely and on The Off Season, he picks up right where "1985," from 2018's KOD, left off: sample-driven bangers and big homie bars. His previous two offerings proved what his laser focus is capable of, but this time around, he seems like he's enjoying the game and that's more than enough. When he takes the pressure off himself, the results are better. —Bobby Carter
KenTheMan, What's My Name?
As more women are carving out space for themselves in hip-hop, Ken The Man is coming for what's hers with a machete. With razor-sharp bars and infectious bounce, the Houston rapper's What's My Name? is a standout project that makes Ken one to watch. Ostentatious cheek-clappers like "Rose Gold Stripper Pole" and "I'm Perfect" ("I'm perfect, don't you see it? / Too hard, I just make it look easy / I would stop it, but these hating hoes need me") offset earnest slow burners "Love Yourself" and "About Me," cementing Big Ken's bad b**** commandments in stone. —Sidney Madden
Maxo Kream, Weight of the World
The paradox of Maxo Kream's career is that while his success enabled him to pull his family out of poverty and grow tremendously, it's probably at a cost far higher than he deserves. His latest album is the third in a saga filled with reasonable highs yet catastrophic lows, with family as the theme tying all three records together. But it ain't all bad. The perseverance deserves to be celebrated and, at times, it is on Weight of The World. Moreso, his consistent jaw-dropping storytelling and willingness to adapt to beats outside of the traditional trap realm separates him from most of his class. It's time to add Kream's name to the list of young greats. —Bobby Carter
Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert*
In this classic fairytale of a hip-hop album, where The Crown's Emma Corrin serves as both narrator and Little Simz's subconscious ("A question, if I may — what's a girl like you want in a place like this?"), the dragon to be slayed is the fundamental misunderstanding of introverts as shy and uncertain, operating at stark disadvantages in an extrovert's world. We'd be foolish to believe that because of her quiet demeanor, or her flow that's sneaky instead of showy, Simz should be mistaken as timid. Not with the album's adventurous detours into grime ("Rollin Stone"), " 80s R&B ("Protect My Energy") and Afrobeat ("Point and Kill," "Fear No Man"), or moments that recall Jay Z at his commercial peak, like "Speed," with blown-out rap percussion and narrow-eyed fervor directed at those who "wanna put me in a box." Or with how she contends with her own family history, like in "I Love You, I Hate You," where she at once airs out her anger and shows empathy toward her absentee father, a coming to terms that can only arrive with age and wisdom, no matter how much potential the precocious artist has always shown. "My speech ain't involuntary / project with intention straight from my lungs," Simz declares in "Introvert." As the herald trumpets make clear, this is a queen's declaration. —Christina Lee
Lukah, When The Black Hand Touches You*
Memphis never stopped being the home of the blues, to hear Lukah tell it. In a time and place where predators and prey meet the same fate, the scramble to survive the systemic traps and generational trauma of an unending drug war can drive a man mad. When The Black Hand Touches You is a funeral dirge in first person. And Lukah, the grim reaper-slash-dealer, resurrects heartaching soul samples to sack up and slang his lyrical antidotes. But all is never lost to total despair, particularly when the haunted goes on the hunt and the black hand of death gets balled into an empowered Black fist. —Rodney Carmichael
Mach-Hommy, Pray For Haiti*
In a recent, curious interview with All Things Considered, Mach-Hommy answered the sort of pointed press query that'd make most stomachs turn. "Do you ever feel survivor's guilt?" asked host Michel Martin, gently. "Of course – a thousand percent," he replied, in a voice low and serene as a dove's. "All the time."
That Mach-Hommy's album is already fated by its title to be a lament for Haiti is almost redundant. His work is often crammed with diasporic twoness, but crammed with other doublenesses, too. Pray For Haiti is cocky and somber, languid and drama-dense, bumpy with Westside Gunn's insane modern squall and silken with the likes of Conductor Williams' lapidary, so-Griselda-Records-in-2012 production. Like all albums we'd consider 'remarkable,' dissonance — cognitive or otherwise — is a boon, rather than an issue. —Mina Tavakoli
MIKE doesn't rap so much as he bleeds diary entries. With lo-fi penmanship that reads like perfectly smudged print, he makes you lean in close to listen. And he's never one to waste a note of earned intimacy. Every year he seems to drop the best confessional of his life, garnering more critical fanfare than his prior outing. Disco! is no exception, yet even for MIKE it feels exceptional. The realest shhh he ever wrote finds him processing the pain of his mother's passing over his gauzy melodic loops while relishing the kind of self-awareness that only comes as a balm after years of painstaking self-examination. —Rodney Carmichael
Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air*
In 1969, historian John Henrik Clarke and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax produced Black Encyclopedia of the Air, an ambitious documentation of the history of the African diaspora. For her latest release, Moor Mother produces her own account of eons of Black history, culture and resistance that places Black folks at the center. As a work of art, Moor Mother's album is a thrilling conference of poetry and heady, electronic soundscapes. As a work of cultural scholarship, it is a harrowing, time-traveling journey through the ancient and ever-changing continuum of Black life. —John Morrison, WXPN
Mother Nature, SZNZ
Chicago is a city suited for the gods. Mother Nature, a female duo born from said ethereal city composed of rappers T.R.U.T.H. and Klevah Knox, spread the gospel in its experimental fourth mixtape, SZNZ. A purposeful attempt to cut through the noise and "rebuild the foundation of true hip-hop culture," a grimy SZNZ uplifts Chicago's complexity with infectious wit, philosophical metaphor, readily adaptable flows and precise delivery that can only come from inner composure and intentionality. Hypnotic neo-soul beat loops — courtesy of local producer and Closed Sessions labelmate BoatHouse — lend a DIY otherworldliness to Mother Nature's bars; when listening, the two rappers sound as intimate as they would if you ran into them spitting on the corner but, at the same time, as unreachable as goddesses lounging near a pond, sharing poetry with their devout following. —LaTesha Harris
Patrick Paige II, If I Fail Are We Still Cool?
Just like everyone else, I'm eagerly awaiting The Internet's next album, but their bassist held it down all 2021 (and 2022 if need be) with If I Fail Are We Still Cool? First officer Patrick Paige II assists us in flight on his metaphorical Forward and Up Airways with little to no turbulence throughout his second album. By the time we get to "40,000 Feet," I can't help but wonder why he hasn't been nudged to the forefront of his band more often. The funky crown jewel of the album, "Whisper (Want My Luv)," makes the case even further: This album is a trip, so don't sleep! —Bobby Carter
Pink Siifu, GUMBO'!*
Pink Siifu hails from all over the sonic and geographic map. But there's a special groove in his soul for his native South. GUMBO'! serves as his site-specific dedication to a musical lineage that stretches from Dungeon Family funk to Weezy's proto-trap. Still, it couldn't rightfully be classified as gumbo — or Siifu — if he didn't smack it up, flip it and deconstruct it with a veritable stew of afro spiritual sounds and righteous-to-ratchet practitioners ranging from Big Rube to Bbymutha. An experimentalist steeped in tradition, Pink Siifu's patchwork quilt feels like the prequel to how we got over. Coming on the heels of his punk-inflected 2020 protest album NEGRO, it's the home-cooked meal we deserve after another year of living while Black in America. —Rodney Carmichael
Polo G, Hall of Fame
When it comes to manifestation, few can compete with Polo G. His latest record, Hall of Fame, continues his discography's tradition of etching him into the pantheon of greatness (see: Die a Legend; The Goat). From the reflective commercial juggernaut that is "RAPSTAR" to the dancehall-influenced "For the Love of New York," Polo confidently steps further into rap's mainstream as he stretches the confines of drill. Even with a plethora of featured artists, Polo remains in control, because these are his stories told on his terms. Trauma remains a primary organizing principle and muse for Polo; he parses through his past to understand his present behaviors and prepare for a future of his own molding. The record is a stunning balance of gruesome imagery and a vibrant undercurrent of optimism. At once a natural evolution and a conscious one, Hall of Fame is another triumphant addition to Polo's consistent discography. —Kyle Denis
Isaiah Rashad, The House Is Burning
On the long-awaited follow-up to his 2016 album The Sun's Tirade, Isaiah Rashad invites us to peer through the looking glass he's been staring into for the past five years. The House Is Burning, in all of its understated glory, is also unapologetically forward — in subject matter, and at some points, in Rashad's delivery, like on the high-octane, standout single "From The Garden" featuring Lil Uzi Vert. But the album brims with promise and growth on tracks like "RIP Young," where Rashad settles comfortably into production that reflects the Southern rap sound he's been deeply immersed in since before he picked up a microphone. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Vince Staples, Vince Staples*
Vince Staples puts his hands into the earth of his trauma on his self-titled album, pulling up a set of experiences that feel more deeply rooted than anything he's ever shared. Known for his brazen storytelling, Staples has tended to express his apprehensions and bravado in more aggressive terms, over beats that are meant to unsettle you. Here, with the help of Kenny Beats, who provides Staples with production that feels more introspective than abrasive — see: the undulating album opener "ARE YOU WITH THAT?" and the gently constructed, Fousheé-assisted "TAKE ME HOME" — the MC uses this project to heal the lingering wounds of his losses. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Don Toliver, Life Of A Don
Don Toliver's sophomore studio effort, Life of a Don, is an aural private show. On tracks like the extravagant "Way Bigger," Toliver pulls listeners into the intimate experience that is his life, post-fame. The lead single, "What You Need," is Toliver at his most ambitious; his layered harmonies spill over thrumming bass as he entices a potential lover with the benefits that come with being at his side. At its core, Life of a Don is Toliver's personal playground, where he never once shies away from the challenge of morphing his reedy voice to adjust to sonic universes that sound unlike anything else in hip-hop. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Tyler, the Creator, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST*
For a certain generation of rappers, a Gangsta Grillz mixtape was a rite of passage (see: Lil Wayne's Dedication 2, Jeezy's Trap Or Die, Meek Mill's Dreamchasers), and Tyler, The Creator resurrected the form. Complete with DJ Drama narrating the journey, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST manages to be distinctly of its time and of another. Tyler has nothing to prove and yet sounds hungrier than ever, even as he thoroughly basks in his success. He's rapping like someone who knows he's made fools of every single person who slept on him, and it's a sight to behold. Behind the boards, his experimental streak pushed into overdrive — his beats shrink, grow and shape shift, sometimes multiple times in the space of three minutes to lend the project a kind of collage-like and freewheeling energy true to its mixtape origins. Tyler has always been artistically self-assured, but no album translates the potency of that confidence like CALL ME as he takes his place among the Gangsta Grillz greats; having achieved success on his own terms, he circled back to get it the old way simply because he could. —Briana Younger
Van Buren Records, Bad For Press
At least Boston is occasionally considered in the geography of hip-hop via the Guru or Ed O.G. name drop. Until recently, nearby Brockton was never mentioned in the conversation. The husk of a former factory town, and the first majority Black city in Massachusetts, it's the home of Van Buren Records, a superteam of rappers, producers and designers hellbent on shaking up the industry and bringing their city along for the ride. Their chemistry calcified on their stunning debut Bad For Press, which mixes world-weariness with mean-mugging throughout its grimy posse cuts: the sound of Brockton hip-hop. —Mano Sundaresan
Westside Gunn, Hitler Wears Hermes 8
Westside Gunn likens himself to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas because of his superior s***-talking skills. But the truth is, Gunn is Scorsese — a visionary armed with a 35mm and an uncompromising POV. To put it plainly, Gunn's work of art is wrought from the penitentiary chances and violence he survived coming up in Buffalo, N.Y. Those years honed his ear for cinematic beats, and his beat selection – much like his high-pitched voice – may be the most recognizable in rap right now. On Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Sincerely Adolph, the first half of an ambitious double LP, he corrals a cast of some of his fave in-house producers – Denny LaFlare, Camouflage Monk and Conductor Williams – collectively known as The Heartbreakers to score a jazz fusion meets "boom-boom-boom-boom-boom"-bap soundtrack. As a curator Gunn is bar none, gathering Jadakiss, Lil Wayne, Sauce Walka, Mach-Hommy and Stove God Cooks on the same project. And as a narrator he's reliably bombastic, cooking up coke tales and dropping random fashion/wrestling/art references in the same pot. It's an acquired taste, served by a street gourmet who's sacrificed so much to attain it. —Rodney Carmichael
Young Thug, Punk
As Young Thug proved with one of the most entertaining Tiny Desk (Home) concerts of 2021, the Atlanta innovator's artistic development is a study in dichotomies that knows no bounds. Harps, acoustic guitars and pop-leaning sensibilities accompany some of Thug's most introspective raps to date on Punk, and though the distinctively delicate production choices might seem antithetical to the album's title, that's exactly where the project hits its highest notes. "Die Slow," "Stressed," "Stupid/Asking" and "Love You More" are diamonds amid the album's cumbersome 20 tracks, while the closer, "Day Before" features an eerie posthumous verse from Mac Miller recorded the day before Mac's 2018 death. More than a decade in, the hip-hop trendsetter hasn't lost his will to experiment. —Sidney Madden
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