The 40 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021

Featuring Bruiser Wolf, Pink Siifu, Little Simz and more

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The 40 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021

If you’ve been reading Paste this year, you know a lot of music came out in 2021. Hip-hop was no exception, and despite a pandemic, it was a blessing in disguise to the many musicians who had an audience eager for music and connection. Many rang in the New Year with Playboi Carti (and will probably do it again for 2022), and others will curl up with Topaz Jones. We witnessed the meteoric rise of the Bruiser Brigade and the electric debut of Genesis Owusu. All things considered, 2021 gifted us some incredible music. Enjoy some of Paste’s favorite hip-hop albums of the year.

Listen to Paste’s Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.

Armand Hammer & The Alchemist: Haram

ELUCID and billy woods, aka Armand Hammer, are a dynamic duo, capable of digging a knife into any subject they want and twisting it, capturing the pain and grotesque fascination with how it got to that point. Their new album Haram, produced by The Alchemist, is a disturbing and stunning thesis on irony and the failures of the big dogs. The paranoia never comes off as being wrapped in tinfoil, nor does the cultural analysis feel condescending. They have struck the perfect balance for an accessible Armand Hammer album without sacrificing the resonance of their message. —Jade Gomez

Baby Keem: The Melodic Blue

At only 21 years old, Baby Keem is one of rap’s brightest. Following 2019’s infectious Die For My Bitch, Keem finally offered his breathtaking full-length debut The Melodic Blue in 2021. With a keen ear for melodies that can live both on TikTok and party playlists, charming lyrics (such as the very honest “I need a girlfriend” on “range brothers”), and a fine grasp of the delicate balance between the intimate and the surface-level, Baby Keem has laid out an exciting groundwork for a career marked by longevity and experimentation without losing sight of a larger pop audience. —Jade Gomez

Backxwash: I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses

Backxwash, noted for her groundbreaking 2020 album God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It, which won the 2020 Polaris Music Prize, can capture the ears of even the most metal-averse listener. Her new album I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses, released June 20, expands upon her chaotic blend of heavy metal, punk and hip-hop that pays homage to horrorcore pioneers such as Three 6 Mafia and Esham, as well as her modern-day inspirations such as clipping. (who contribute production to “Blood in the Water”) and Danny Brown. In the midst of her lush wall of sound is an attempt to make sense of who she is, why she is here and other philosophical questions that rest within the crevices of our psyches that she dares to explore. —Jade Gomez

Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud: The Plugs I Met 2

In a rare instance of the mixtape sequel holding up to the original, the dynamic duo of Griselda’s Benny the Butcher and legendary producer Harry Fraud released The Plugs I Met 2, a feature-laden display of New York rap at its most rugged. Fraud’s red carpet production serves as a backdrop for a lush, visceral portrait of trapping at its finest. Fat Joe, French Montana, Jim Jones and even the deceased Chinx are shining stars, helping solidify Benny’s ascension to one of rap’s most brilliant figures as he revitalizes the image of New York, immortalized in the works of the city’s legends. —Jade Gomez

Boldy James and The Alchemist: Bo Jackson

Detroit rapper Boldy James has gone from underground sensation to mainstream success following the steady rise of Griselda Records as one of rap’s most exciting collectives. Alongside The Alchemist, a living legend in the genre, James’ lackadaisical delivery over the stripped-down boom-bap beats position him side by side with the main players in the golden age of rap. His menacing bars open themselves up more with each listen to reveal a vivid portrait of street braggadocio painted with care. The chemistry between James and Alchemist becomes stronger with each release as the two bring out the best in each other to create love letters to a time in hip-hop that is seeing its resurgence. —Jade Gomez


On ROADRUNNER, BROCKHAMPTON don’t try to reinvent the wheel as much as they pay homage to it. The album itself is soaked in the kind of gritty percussion and verbal intensity synonymous with hip-hop. But this time around, BROCKHAMPTON brought a few friends outside of their crew along for the ride. “BUZZCUT” kicks off things with a hearty vehemence against rip-roaring production and dangerously accurate one-liners from Kevin Abstract like, “A platinum record not gon’ keep my Black ass out of jail.” BROCKHAMPTON spit bars with laser-like precision on the JPEGMAFIA-assisted “CHAIN ON,” and the theme of success continues on “BANKROLL,” where cameos from both A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg remind listeners of the unapologetic bravado the pair specialize in. In typical BH fashion, there are moments on “THE LIGHT,” “WHAT’S THE OCCASION?” and “DEAR LORD” that lean into vulnerability, tenderness and slight existential dread. It’s easy to pinpoint BROCKHAMPTON’s growth as evidenced by their latest project, but deeper parts of their creativity are tapped when outsiders—who happen to be insanely talented—are allowed to infiltrate their unit. As the band continues to map out their progression, they also showcase their deep knowledge of and reverence for rap as a whole. This particular album reaffirms an element of hip-hop that the boys have earnestly embraced: There is nothing more important than brotherhood. —Candace McDuffie

Bruiser Wolf: Dope Game Stupid

Bruiser Wolf has garnered significant buzz as one of the newest signees of Bruiser Brigade Records, a new label founded by Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Wolf’s debut album, Dope Game Stupid, is a whimsical and introspective introduction to the rapper, complete with metaphors that range from genius to outright ridiculous. The album’s title track’s hypnotizing psychedelic loop serves as a funhouse mirror reflection of Wolf’s biting recollections of his illicit activities. His distinct delivery dances between a whisper and a sermon as he raps, “Stupid, when you get indicted by the feds / Those stories get made up like beds / And oh yeah, the game starts where it end / So if you get caught, don’t you talk, like an imaginary friend,” painting vivid portraits of his fascinating life straight out of the beginning stages of a film script. —Jade Gomez

Conway the Machine: La Maquina

Conway the Machine’s near-constant output is overwhelming at times, but it harkens back to a golden age of hip-hop where artists churned out mixtapes to satiate hungry fans. Normally, this model proves fruitless, but Griselda Records, the collective comprising Conway, his brother Westside Gunn, and their cousin Benny the Butcher, have manipulated the rap landscape to suit their own needs, to great results. La Maquina’s slick production with horns and clickety hi-hats is a minimalist backdrop for Conway’s hunger, sprinkled with obscure sports references and a distinct braggadocio that New York rappers channel effortlessly. If you don’t take anything else away from this project, at least stream “Scatter Brain” featuring Ludacris and JID, a perfect example of Conway’s consistency and versatility with his wide array of collaborators. —Jade Gomez

Duke Deuce: Duke Nukem

Memphis’ Duke Deuce is a star, and on his hard-hitting album Duke Nukem, he proves that there is more up his sleeve than just crunk bangers. There is a charming element to his incessant pride and joy that only grows more powerful with each “What the fuck?” ad-lib that is scattered throughout the album. Duke carries on the crunk legacies of the likes of Three 6 Mafia and Lil Jon and proves his artistry goes far beyond the infectious viral hit “Crunk Ain’t Dead.” Whether he’s rapping a rallying cry on “SOLDIERS STEPPIN” or breaking out a spine-chilling croon on album standout “ARMY,” Duke is making Memphis proud, and he’s forging his own sound without forgetting what made him. —Jade Gomez

EST Gee: Bigger Than Life or Death

The fifth mixtape from Louisville’s EST Gee, Bigger Than Life or Death is the former college football prospect’s first for Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group. “I know a star and hustler when I see one, and EST Gee is up next,” Yo Gotti said in a statement upon signing the rapper, while Lil Baby called him “the new Young Jeezy”—those two are among the many heavy-hitters featured on Bigger Than Life or Death, including Future, Young Thug, Pooh Shiesty, 42 Dugg and Lil Durk. EST Gee has the practiced confidence of his star athlete past (“And the game, it blessed me ‘cause I play with courage, streets atop my jersey”), and he’s overcome untold adversity to earn it—he survived being shot five times in 2019, and in 2020, his mother and brother died within weeks of each other. Released on his mother’s birthday, Bigger Than Life or Death is EST Gee’s biggest win yet. —Scott Russell

Genesis Owusu: Smiling with No Teeth

Genre classifications can be a helpful shorthand when it comes to understanding and engaging with new music, but nowadays, more and more artists are leaving them entirely in the dust. Just take Ghana-born, Australia-based musician Genesis Owusu, whose thrilling debut record Smiling with No Teeth is consistently difficult to pin down in a way that feels nothing less than vital. The avant-garde, yet undeniably accessible album spans glitchy, Death Grips-esque electro-hip-hop, lush dark-pop and R&B, lusty synth-funk and new-wave rock, with Owusu as the charismatic presence in the eye of the stylistic cyclone. On lead single “Gold Chains” and the album as a whole, Owusu exposes “the flaws of being in a profession where, more and more, you have to be the product, rather than just the provider of the product,” emphasizing the human being under all that gold, whose peace of mind may be the price he pays. —Scott Russell


IDK has shifted his artistry with each release, from the intensely personal 2017 album IWASVERYBAD to the cinematic Is He Real? in 2019. On 2021’s USEE4YOURSELF, he flexes his star power with an album featuring rap legends such as Jay Electronica and the late MF DOOM. IDK’s infectious braggadocio, juxtaposed against his silky vocals, underscores the exploratory, confessional nature of the album as the DMV rapper swims to new shores with his music. —Jade Gomez

Injury Reserve: By the Time I Get to Phoenix

Injury Reserve has persisted in the face of trauma. Along with a pandemic that greatly impacted countless musicians’ plans, the group lost member Stepa J. Groggs in June of 2020. Aside from a few features with Dos Monos, Tony Velour and Aminé, the now-duo stayed away from social media until the announcement of their second studio album By the Time I Get to Phoenix. It was largely completed before the passing of Groggs, and all of his contributions were preserved for the album’s release. If the album’s title is familiar, it’s for good reason. Named after the Glen Campbell song covered by countless artists, Injury Reserve reused the name as an homage to their hometown of Phoenix, Arizona and to make a statement on their approach to their artistry which recycles and pays respects to multiple eras and genres of music. The album was preceded by the singles “Knees” and “Superman That,” both of which saw the experimental hip-hop duo take even harder turns into the avant-garde. —Jade Gomez

Isaiah Rashad: The House Is Burning

It’s been five years since we’ve last heard from Isaiah Rashad, the Top Dawg Entertainment rapper whose name is doused in mysticism. Glimpses of songs shared on Instagram sustained hungry fans for years, who pieced together any sign of life. Rashad finally delivers on The House is Burning, picking up where he left off. Anchored in his struggle with his mental health, Rashad’s thoughtful deconstructions of life’s vices are carried by the album’s minimalist production, influenced by the sparse, percussive Dirty South mixtape sound. Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat samples are morphed into haunting lo-fi loops that thread through Rashad’s path to making sense of himself and the world around him. As the smoke finally dissipates, Rashad can finally fill in the gaps left in his absence and look toward the future. —Jade Gomez

Ka: A Martyr’s Reward

The sixth solo album from Brooklyn veteran Ka, A Martyr’s Reward is full of hard-earned wisdom and resilience, with the rapper and producer looking back on the heights he’s scaled across several decades in the game. “I’m the host, they just parasitic / Committed, had to live it before I pad the lyric,” he insists on “Sad to Say,” later adding, “What I pieced together and made from it / Built me strong enough to reach the most raised summit.” His expertise is self-evident, and Ka’s gravelly, Guru-esque monotone suits his acrobatic pen perfectly, his understated style all the more befitting of his deft lyricism. Meanwhile, Ka accompanies those densely layered lines with minimalist instrumentals, some sinister (“I Notice”), others triumphant (“Having Nothin’). A Martyr’s Reward is a gritty victory lap that aspiring emcees will be learning from for years to come. —Scott Russell

Little Simz: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

While artists like Skepta and Dave have come to define the future sound of British rap, it’s Little Simz who might very well leave the most lasting mark this year. Her single “I Love You, I Hate You” is one of the best all-around tracks of 2021. Produced by Inflo (who has had nothing short of a Midas touch on his work with SAULT, Michael Kiwanuka, Cleo Sol and Jungle), the song finds Simz sliding into each bar with dense lyricism that’s just flat-out impressive on a pointed track about her maligned father; there’s opening yourself up by being vulnerable and then there’s this: “Never thought my parent would give me my first heartbreak (I hate you) / Anxiety givin’ me irregular heart rate (I love you) / Used to avoid gettin’ into how I really feel about this (I hate you) / Now I see how fickle life can be and so it can’t wait (I love you) / Should’ve been the person there to hold me on my dark days (I hate you) / It’s easier to stargaze and wish than be faced with this reality (I love you) / Is you a sperm donor or a dad to me?” There’s emotional outpourings like this at every turn of Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, but it always sounds so grandiose. She’s as confident on the mic as they come and you can feel the cold, hard gaze in her eyes when she’s delivering lines like the one above. You vibe hard with how cool she is on “Woman,” saying, “Brooklyn ladies, know you hustle on the daily / Innovatin’ just like Donna Summer in the ‘80s.” She’s rapping for women, she’s rapping for Black women, she’s rapping for women all around the world, and she’s rapping for people who can appreciate how the hip-hop art form is built for marginalized voices to rise up. There’s broad appeal to her overall aesthetic, too, and now on her fourth album, Little Simz is poised to highlight the mighty British rap scene for good. —Adrian Spinelli

Mach-Hommy: Pray for Haiti

Some of the biggest artists out there are stylistic weather vanes, blown this way and that by whichever strong winds happen to catch them. Enigmatic Haitian rapper Mach-Hommy is the opposite: His style is his style, and he’ll compromise it for no one. Pray for Haiti, executive produced by Westside Gunn (and released by Gunn’s Griselda Records), is a mesmerizing display of that style: Mach-Hommy’s rhymes are as erudite as they are ice-cold (“Oh, word? Your raps braggadocious? / Put this .38 in your mouth, go ‘head and spit your magnum opus” he smirks on “No Blood No Sweat”), and he delivers them over sparse, yet dreamy beats, spliced together using jazz and soul samples, and punctuated by audio clips pulled from such disparate sources as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and a PBS panel discussion of the Haitian Creole language. Mach-Hommy is walking a path that’s all his own, and this album is proof he knows exactly what he’s doing—Pray for Haiti has the immediacy to grab your ear and hold it, with the depth and density to keep you coming back. —Scott Russell

Madlib: Sound Ancestors

The idea of Madlib and Four Tet joining forces is unbelievably enticing. Both are forward-thinking artists who are admired in their respective musical corners—one is hip-hop’s undisputed beat king and the other is an acclaimed electronic musician. So it won’t come as a shock that their collaborative record, Sound Ancestors, sounds like decades of mastery went into it. Madlib, who’s famously mysterious and prolific, and has collaborated with greats like MF DOOM, De La Soul and Erykah Badu, sent Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) hundreds of files over several years, consisting of various beats and live instrumentation, and he allowed Hebden to distort and curate them as he saw fit—however, Hebden decided he wouldn’t add anything of his own. The result is an ambitious, versatile LP that displays their wide range of tastes, from left-field flute and bass odysseys (“One For Quartabê/Right Now”) and minimal, groovy psych-rock à la Unknown Mortal Orchestra (“The Call,” “Road of the Lonely Ones”) to Spanish guitar fingerpicking (“Latino Negro”) and dramatic organ noodling (“The New Normal”). The record is also sprinkled with Madlib’s various record scratches, artful bells and enigmatic samples, and though it might sound like sensory overload, there’s actually plenty of space in these songs, allowing listeners to latch onto the album as if it’s one hypnotizing, ever-changing groove. To call this album inspired would be an understatement. —Lizzie Manno

Maxo Kream: Weight of the World

Its release date was a moving target for a minute there, but Maxo Kream’s much-anticipated album Weight of the World officially arrived on Oct. 18 via Big Persona/88 Classic/RCA Records. The 16-track LP pays tribute to the rising Houston rapper’s late brother, Mmadu Biosah. “I put my all into this album and then sum. RIP To my brother,” Maxo tweeted upon its release. Weight of the World features guest spots from Tyler, The Creator (“Big Persona”), A$AP Rocky (“Streets Alone”), Freddie Gibbs (“What I Look Like”), Monaleo (“Cee Cee”) and Don Toliver (closer “Believe”). Maxo’s Brandon Banks follow-up was preceded by three singles, “Local Joker,” “Big Persona” and “Greener Knots”—we praised “Big Persona” among the best songs of September. But the album is a must-listen from top to bottom, a breakout effort in which Maxo Kream demonstrates the strength required to carry the Weight of the World on your shoulders. —Scott Russell

McKinley Dixon: For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her

“All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist,” Kurt Vonnegut once wrote. “It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” Richmond, Virginia’s McKinley Dixon, too, rejects that illusion on his third album (and Spacebomb debut), using jazzy, avant-garde art-rap as a means of processing his past and creating a better future. Emerging from the devastation of his best friend’s tragic death in 2018, Dixon examines Black struggles and the societal factors that exacerbate them, fending off self-doubt, regret and trauma as he fights to find catharsis For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her. The result is a powerful, personal act of “musical time travel” that aims to ease the pain it catalogs by breaking down barriers of understanding, tracing a nonlinear path for others to follow. —Scott Russell

Megan Thee Stallion: Something For Thee Hotties

If 2021 gave us anything, it gave us the return of Megan Thee Stallion’s slick-talking alter ego Tina Snow. On Something For Thee Hotties, which is a collection of unreleased freestyles and loosies, she definitely sounds the part. However, Megan’s meteoric rise to stardom began with viral videos of her going up against some of her hometown’s best in cyphers. Something For Thee Hotties is a gift to the fans who have witnessed her journey from Southern-rap princess to one of her generation’s most impactful artists, and it’s further proof that she’s here to stay. —Jade Gomez

Mick Jenkins: Elephant In The Room

When it came to addressing the Elephant In The Room, Mick Jenkins took his time, then hurried up: The Chicago emcee spent most of 2021 hopping on other artists’ songs, the only exception being his June solo single “Truffles.” It was just this month that he shared another, “Contacts,” and announced his third studio album, out now via Cinematic Music Group. Its title is more than just a familiar phrase (or clever boast): Elephant In The Room is Jenkins’ effort to voice difficult truths both personal and universal, “from my estranged relationship with my father to friendships that don’t feel the same anymore to the even more basic idea of acknowledging that I need help.” There’s a vital power in looking one’s issues in the eye, particularly nowadays, when it feels like the problems just keep piling up, and Jenkins and his collaborators do just that, taking aim at the elephant through a potent combination of fearless lyricism and keen musicality. —Scott Russell

MIKE: Disco!

At 22 years old, New York City’s MIKE is already on his ninth full-length project, a testament to the artistry that explodes through the speakers on Disco! Produced entirely by dj blackpower—that is, MIKE himself—the record couches the prolific artist’s introspection in jazzy, peaceful instrumentation, a pairing that proves cathartic. The kind of songwriter who’s more forthcoming in his music than anywhere else, MIKE works through his traumas on wax, from losing his mother (“The only teeth that know these thoughts, that’d be me and God’s / The only dreams that leave me lost, it be me with Mom”) to hiding his suffering in smoke (“Started messin’ with the spliffs, intense pain / Used to bezel it with grins when the friends came”). Lushly produced and poignantly penned, Disco! is as powerful as anything MIKE has put out. —Scott Russell

Mother Nature and Boathouse: SZNZ

Chicago rap duo Mother Nature are a hidden gem, comprised of rappers Klevah and TRUTH’s witty spitfire bars and silky vocals. Following 2020’s Portalz, the two zoom out of their hard-hitting philosophical questions in favor of a fun-loving, cocky display of their mesmerizing chemistry on SZNZ. The mixtape, entirely produced by their labelmate Boathouse, features a host of Chicago natives joining in on the fun, including Sir Michael Rocks, Valee and Brittney Carter. From album standout “MOMENTZ” to the slick summertime vibe of “DELIVERED,” Mother Nature’s latest is a breath of fresh air.—Jade Gomez

Moor Mother: Black Encyclopedia of the Air

Moor Mother’s Camae Ayewa cannot be bound by time or space. For her new album Black Encyclopedia of the Air, the artist echoes the sentiments of her Black Quantum Futurism collective, focusing on ideas about time, memory and violence. Recorded at home during the pandemic, the album is darker, more focused and more epic than what we’ve heard from Moor Mother in the past. Through the album’s stuttering beats and jazzy influence, Ayewa writes both candidly and cryptically, like on the rancorous, “sudden violence”-influenced “Zami,” or on the chill groove of “Shekere.” Though the production is often minimal, Moor Mother’s talent for creating layers of dynamic, textural noise to complement the music and lyrics never leave a track feeling hollow, instead lending each one a sense of perpetual cosmic expansion. —Jason Friedman

Nas: King’s Disease II

The first week of August was a good week for New York. Fresh off the Verzuz battle between The Lox and Dipset, the city’s own Nas released his 14th studio album, King’s Disease II, a follow-up to 2020’s King’s Disease. While most of Nas’ recent work has paled in comparison to some of his more iconic releases, the rapper is reminding fans both old and new of what makes him a living legend. Teaming up with producer Hit-Boy, the pair effortlessly work off one another as Nas navigates punchy drums and keyboards, switching between the old and new landscapes of hip-hop he has influenced. There’s even the incredible “Death Row East,” a raw look at his involvement in the historic coast wars that claimed the lives of multiple all-timers, including Tupac, with whom Nas had a highly publicized beef. The track details the pair’s reconciliation shortly before Tupac’s murder, providing a somber look at the less glamorous side of music. Alongside a wide selection of features ranging from New York up-and-comer A Boogie Wit da Hoodie to the swagger of the Bay Area’s YG, and even a special appearance from Ms. Lauryn Hill herself, King’s Disease II oozes leisure and luxury alongside a keen understanding of his place in hip-hop as Nas shines a light on the titans before his time and the ones in the making. —Jade Gomez


As a working musician, your goal, in a sense, is maximum exposure. You share your work and your story in the hopes that an audience will gather around to hear them, pouring yourself into your art so as to better connect with the listeners who make your pursuits possible. You welcome the world in and show them exactly who you are. For Compton duo Paris Texas, that kind of revelation is the exception, not the rule. Yet the gambit works: The mysteries of the duo’s genre-defying, self-produced debut project only heighten its intrigue, imbuing BOY ANONYMOUS with a sense of boundless possibility. At eight tracks, BOY ANONYMOUS is not quite an album, nor is it an EP—it’s not quite hip-hop, nor is it rock or pop, though elements of all three genres are all over it. This is exactly as Paris Texas intended: “Categories make things comfortable for our lil lizard brains,” Louie Pastel acknowledged on Instagram in announcing the band’s debut. “But this project we kinda embraced the ideal of not knowing exactly who or what we are, hence the name: BOY ANONYMOUS.” Like shadows looming large on a wall, the music is amplified by its mystery—the duo’s stylistic versatility makes them seem capable of almost anything.—Scott Russell

Pi’erre Bourne: The Life of Pi’erre 5

Although Columbia, South Carolina’s Pi’erre Bourne arguably remains best-known for his production work with the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti and Kanye West—he won a Grammy for his contributions to Jesus Is KingThe Life Of Pi’erre 5 should clear up any lingering doubts about his double-threat status. Bourne’s second studio album, the fifth and final chapter of the Life of Pi’erre series he kicked off independently in 2016, is slick and self-assured from beginning to end, like a dreamier Whole Lotta Red. On the boards, Bourne pairs idiosyncratic synths with hard-nosed trap drums, while on the mic, his fragmented, sing-songy slurries—littered with cartoon references, and the insistence that his money says more than he ever could—candy-coat the stresses of a rising rap star (“Shit look easy ‘til you the man,” he observes on “Sossboy 2”). —Scott Russell

Pink Siifu: GUMBO’!

The third album from Birmingham-born, Cincinnati-bred, Los Angeles-based artist Pink Siifu, GUMBO’!’s guiding principle is the same multiplicity that defines both its namesake and its creator. It’s as if Pink Siifu, who produces a handful of tracks himself under his iiye alias, set out specifically to disprove that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” All 18 GUMBO’! tracks are collaborations, from de facto title track “Gumbo’! 4 tha Folks, Hold On,” featuring Big Rube, Liv.e, V.C.R, Nick Hakim and producer DJ Harrison, to “Play On’! Inshallah,” with Liv.e, Kamilah and producer Notwolfy. The record is just as protean from a genre standpoint, as Pink Siifu’s tireless explorations span the entire spectrum of Black music, from in-your-face hip-hop (“Wayans Bros.,” “Big Ole” feat. BbyMutha) to electro-soul (“Doin Tew Much. [In My Mama Name]”) and borderline-ambient R&B (“Living Proof [Family],” prod. The Alchemist). It’s a rich, complex concoction, bold and subtle at turns, a feast for the ears. —Scott Russell

Playboi Carti: Whole Lotta Red

Yes, the album was technically released in 2020, but Carti made 2021 his year. Carti was made for the internet, with infectious hooks that will live forever in memes, TikToks and Instagram captions. The highly influential rapper, who is partially responsible for the electronic-tinged trap that has helped usher in a new generation of SoundCloud musicians, offered up Whole Lotta Red with the intention of it being as polarizing as he is. It opens up further with each listen as Carti emerges as the vampire king 2021 didn’t know it needed. —Jade Gomez

Pooh Shiesty: Shiesty Season

Pooh Shiesty released his breakout debut mixtape in February, and Shiesty Season turned out to be a prophetic title. The project not only cemented the Memphis-bred emcee’s place atop Gucci Mane’s New 1017 label class, but also racked up hundreds of millions of streams, making Shiesty an overnight crossover star. His gritty, melodic and distinctly Southern trap music has a cold-blooded edge—“Yeah, I’m a real gangster, this some shit you can’t rehearse,” he raps on “Neighbors”—and a stylistic laser focus that never falters. Shiesty stands shoulder to shoulder with heavyweights like Lil Durk (on platinum hit “Back in Blood”), 21 Savage (“Box of Churches”) and his label boss Gucci Mane (“Ugly”), an especially impressive feat given that this is his first project. —Scott Russell

Quentin Ahmad DaGod: N.O.A.H.

Danny Brown’s Bruiser Brigade Records made 2021 their year, as they shape up to build a rap empire the likes of No Limit, Cash Money, Suave House and more. Next up on the roster is Quentin Ahmad DaGod’s N.O.A.H., a scrappy and scathing Detroit rap gem. DaGod is rough around the edges, painting bleak pictures and pairing clever rhymes reminiscent of the ’90s golden age of gangster rap with his own regional flair. With a captivating rasp in the vein of New York’s Styles P and the clever storytelling set in motion by forgotten coast stars such as Texas’ Scarface, Raphy’s smooth, soulful production sets a lush backdrop for DaGod’s distinct delivery and undeniable talent. With the added bonus of a sensual undercurrent that gives the Detroit rapper a chilling soulfulness, N.O.A.H. adds another facet to the multi-dimensional Bruiser Brigade crew, rounding out their wide array of styles with a more grounded, classic scruff. —Jade Gomez

R.A.P. Ferreira: Bob’s Son

Chicago’s Rory Allen Philip Ferreira has been a force in underground hip-hop for a decade now, earning a cult following via his prolific output as Milo, Scallops Hotel and R.A.P. Ferreira. Those last two aliases of his join forces on Bob’s Son (full title: Bob’s Son: R.A.P. Ferreira in the Garden Level Cafe of the Scallops Hotel), with the self-described “soothsayer and nayslayer” Ferreira acting as the auteur behind a dizzying array of spoken-word samples, avant-garde arrangements and densely inventive rhymes. Titled in a tribute to poet Bob Kaufman, the album is a creative kaleidoscope, with Ferreira’s exhilarating idiosyncrasy coloring both its production and its lyricism. Melodic and jazzy beats undergo seismic shifts midsong (“yamships, flaxseed”), employing everything from bass harmonics (“abomunist manifesto”) to harp arpeggios (“bobby digital’s little wings”), while on the mic, Ferreira alchemizes “New slurs, new verbs / New curves, new nouns, new sounds” (“redguard snipers”). Released Jan. 1 via Ferreira’s own Ruby Yacht label, Bob’s Son debuted as a VR-esque experience where listeners could hear the songs while traversing a virtual cafe, and that’s less a gimmick than a necessary extension of this album—the kind worth wandering around in, whether you know where you’re going or not. —Scott Russell

R.A.P. Ferreira: the Light Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures

Around the midpoint of his second 2021 album, the Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures, Nashville’s R.A.P. Ferreira coolly observes, “I go a littl? bit deeper than the averag? emcee.” The understatement is enough to stop you in your tracks—Ferreira’s lyrics, both here and across his various projects, are overflowing with kaleidoscopic wit, or, as he puts it on “Upton 37,” “My scripture dynamic, the vision elastic.” The erudite auteur delights in going his own way (“Giggling in the night, libertines preach advice / And I find myself nodding along / Or was it nodding off?”) over watery boom-bap instrumentals, moving at a placid pace on opener “contrapuntal” and standing alone at the mic throughout the album, save on its single feature: his Ruby Yacht ally ELDON on “Blackmissionfigs.” Ferreira repeatedly promises, “I will rap forever”—we should be so lucky. —Scott Russell

slowthai: TYRON

slowthai’s self-titled sophomore album, TYRON is an exciting follow-up project whose bifurcated structure encapsulates the duality of slowthai’s effervescent rap persona and the evolving interiority of Tyron Frampton. The LP’s A-side features a barrage of high-energy, bouncy, grime-rooted, all-caps tracks that encompass these quintessential boastful, bravado-based lyrics. In “45 SMOKE,” the album’s opening freestyle, slowthai bursts onto the track screaming, “Rise and shine / Let’s get it / Bomboclaat, dickhead, bomboclaat, dickhead.” And honestly? Bars. It’s a deeply slowthai intro to a song—energetic, cheeky. There are these recurring braggadocious gestures and flourishes throughout the album’s A-side. Later in the same song, slowthai, like Nas and Loyle Carner before him, lays claim over the Earth, saying, “The whole world is mine.” The lyrical shift from brazen to bummed out over the arc of TYRON but especially on the B-side—the strongest side, methinks—effectively elucidates the difficulty that slowthai seems to have as he navigates how much of his anti-authority trickster nature is and will continue to be authentically Tyron; authentically slowthai. —Adesola Thomas

Topaz Jones: Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma

One listen to Topaz Jones’ Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma evokes a single reaction: “Damn.” The Montclair, New Jersey musician followed up 2016’s ARCADE with a funky, vulnerable and autobiographical sophomore album that evokes countless beautiful pictures of childhood and adolescence through Jones’ eyes. Collaged together with spoken-word segments from his family, Jones takes cues from Black music and cinema to craft a delicate, honest celebration and reflection of his formative years with a strong sense of self. —Jade Gomez

Tyler, the Creator: Call Me If You Get Lost

Call Me If You Get Lost doesn’t strike the same emotional resonances as Tyler, the Creator’s last two LPs, but it isn’t meant to. When that piano and brass section pulsates behind Tyler on “RUNITUP,” you might think of the lingering horror orchestras that engulfed Wolf. Or when his vocal delivery on “LEMONHEAD” rushes and thrashes, you’re transported back to listening to a kid figuring himself out on Goblin. That’s the crowning achievement of this record—the way it sharply reminds every listener that the early entries in an artist’s discography are not parts of their past meant to be forgotten. For Tyler, the recklessness of his 20s did not leave him among the ruins of early-2010s hip-hop, but rather has helped make him a 30-year-old with a multi-million-dollar confidence and a Rolls Royce collection to flaunt—in an industry praying just to catch up. —Matt Mitchell

Vince Staples: Vince Staples

In his nearly decade-long career, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples has never put out a bad album, a hot streak that continues on his new self-titled effort. That said, listeners looking for the “FUN!” of his last album won’t find it on Vince Staples: The Kenny Beats-produced project is more like the breezy FM!’s suffocating counterpoint, with Staples stepping into the shadows to discuss the costs of living in a place where, inevitably, either “the sun or the guns come out.” The emcee has long made clear he can stand the heat, but spends Vince Staples showing us how much weight his psyche carries as a result: “When I see my fans / I’m too paranoid to shake they hands / Clutchin’ on the blam / Don’t know if you foe or if you fam,” he raps on “Sundown Town.” On the low-key psychedelic “Taking Trips,” he almost explicitly rejects FM!’s entire sensibility: “I hate July / Crime is high, the summer sucks / Can’t even hit the beach without the heaters in my trunk.” But a line on the R&B-infused “Take Me Home” puts it simplest: “You know these trips come with baggage.” Staples says he self-titled this album because it’s his most personal—if the rest of his discography is a shopping spree, then Vince Staples is the bill coming due. —Scott Russell

Wiki: Half God

If there’s one thing Wiki learned during his time with New York hip-hop group Ratking, it’s that he works well with others. With the slick talk of a seasoned New York rap veteran and the experimental itch of the ’90s East Village art-punks, Wiki dipped his toes in the water with Telephonebooth, released in collaboration with Nah. Now, he sets his sights on producer Navy Blue for their collaborative album Half God, enlisting his gloomy production laced with ever-familiar piano samples and hi-hats for a classic New York feel. Wiki proves he is perpetually a student, always seeking to see how far his talents can take him. At this rate, he could go to the moon. —Jade Gomez

ZelooperZ: Van Gogh’s Left Ear

Detroit rapper ZelooperZ evades convention, instead reinventing his unique sound without end. On his surprise album Van Gogh’s Left Ear, the follow-up to 2020’s Valley of Life, ZelooperZ positions himself as akin to one of his favorite painters as he creates his own colorful, surreal world. As part of the Bruiser Brigade, one of the finest hip-hop collectives in recent memory, ZelooperZ serves as the group’s “secret sauce” with his distinct vocal delivery and witty punchlines similar to label head Danny Brown. Where ZelooperZ differs is in his production choices, embracing the whimsical, ridiculous and downright absurd on Van Gogh’s Left Ear. “Battery,” the album’s first single, is a cacophonous display of confidence, while the Crash Bandicoot sample on the Brown-featuring “Bash Bandicoon” is as hilarious as it is intriguing, with the two rappers nestling into different pockets of the Dilip-produced beat. The latter half of the album is ZelooperZ in a more accessible, relaxed state, with trap hi-hats and flutes soundtracking his introspective reflections on his momentous career. With the two sides of ZelooperZ coming together as a whole, Van Gogh’s Left Ear is a culmination of everything the rapper has built, while still leaving room to reinvent once again. —Jade Gomez

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