Words by Brian James
Brian James is a former co-host of the Best Song Ever podcast and contributor to Off Shelf and other music publications. As a lifelong enthusiast, he has been a fan of hip-hop since middle school and now enjoys keeping up with mainstream and underground releases, and diving deep on the sampled and influencing sub-genres.
The Year in Hip Hop: 2021
It’s a little silly saying “2021 was a good year for Hip Hop” because really, if you pay close enough attention, every year is a good year for Hip Hop. When you think about it, Hip Hop is still a relatively “young” genre of music as compared to some others and is still able to push the genre forward and experiment in some fresh and interesting ways. It’s also old enough to pull from classic sounds and recall the “good ol’ days.” Not to be hyperbolic, but, hyperbolically speaking it really is the best and most exciting genre of music to ever exist in the history of all mankind.
When looking over my favorite releases from this year, I felt like they fit nicely into five different categories. There’s definitely some overlap and maybe some fit into a different category, but, whatever, this is just how my brain made sense of covering this year. I’ll also be identifying the album in each category I feel is the best and most worthy of your precious time. So, sit back, relax and hopefully I’ll introduce you to a new and incredible album for you to love as much as I did. Also, stick around until the end of the post, where you’ll find a playlist of my favorite songs from each album mentioned below!
“Mainstream” Hip Hop:
In a year that was largely dominated by all the Drake vs. Ye nonsense and their apparent reconciliation, there were actually some really awesome “mainstream” Hip Hop music. I’m using air quotes here because some of these picks aren’t exactly mainstream, but they fall into this sound a bit more than some of the other categories.
Take, for example, Topaz Jones’ Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama (New Funk Academy) and Patrick Paige II’s If I Fail Are We Still Cool? (Fat Possum.) These are two incredible albums that I wish blew up more than they did this year. Patrick Paige II especially leans into some modern mainstream Hip Hop sounds in such a fresh and interesting way, while still making thoughtful music surrounding it.
If you’re looking for actual mainstream, super popular albums that are REALLY good I’d check out Tyler the Creator‘s CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST (Columbia Records) and Vince Staples‘ self titled (Universal Music Group) album. Vince is an artist I’ve been obsessed with ever since 2015’s Summertime ’06. He’s constantly been interested in staying fresh, while also moving the genre forward in some really exciting ways (see: Big Fish Theory.) For his self titled album this year he teamed up with Kenny Beats and made a sparse, beautiful album that really allows his vocal talents and lyricism to shine.
All of these are very worth diving into but the best of the best has to be Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (AWAL Recordings.) In my personal top 10 list I call this an instant Hip Hop classic, an album that will be talked about for decades to come, and I truly believe that. It’s such a shining example of a great, mainstream Hip Hop album that isn’t afraid to experiment, while delivering jam after jam. It’s a nonstop jam fest!
Dense and Atmospheric:
I’m not 100% sold on this category name, but felt it best represented the albums within it. These are definitely albums that take investment and aren’t very accessible. From the production, to the flow and lyricism, these albums play with Hip Hop structures and can often be very hook-less; yet, they create these fascinating dense and atmospheric universes to play in that are astounding.
Curly Castro’s Little Robert Hutton (Backwoodz Studioz) and th1rt3en‘s A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism (Fat Beats Records) are two really great examples of albums I didn’t even think I liked the first couple of times I heard them, but was still very drawn to them. I listen to so much music each year that it’s sometimes hard for me to engage with inaccessible albums and will move on too quickly. These albums got their hooks in me and wouldn’t let go. Both of them have just show stopping lyricism and create such unique universes that they proved impossible to deny.
On the other end of the spectrum, Armand Hammer’s Haram (Backwoodz Studioz) and Boldy James‘ Bo Jackson (ALC) were two albums I immediately connected with, despite the denseness that each contain. These were albums that my appreciation has grown exponentially with each listen and I’ve witnessed these universes expand and morph over time in some really interesting ways. It should be noted that these were both produced by The Alchemist, who is just having an amazing resurgence the last couple of years and is such an exciting producer making the best music of his life.
Writing about each of the albums above, I wish I could spotlight them all as the “best” example of the category as they’re all so strong and great, but there can only be one in this post based on rules I imposed on myself! That one is, without a doubt, Wiki‘s Half God (Wikset Enterprise.) I’m so excited for the year that Wiki had because I feel like he’s finally reaching his full potential as a rapper. I’ve been a fan of him since his Ratking days and have been waiting for his breakthrough year. Half God is a monster of an album. It’s long, every song is hypnotic and Wiki just raps his fucking head off. The production was handled entirely by Navy Blue (more on him later) and it is really beautiful and subtle while being subversive of Hip Hop norms.
Hip Hop Classicists:
Golden Age Hip Hop and that of the later 90s is probably my absolute favorite music, so it’s sometimes especially hard for me to connect with albums that pull from the era when I could just listen to the classics instead. It’s definitely not an easy task to lean into the classic sounds of Hip Hop and come away with an album that feels fresh, yet these artists did just that and show how great it is when successfully pulled off.
Skyzoo’s All the Brilliant Things (Mello Music Group) and Evidence’s Unlearning Vol. 1 (Rhymesayers) are two great examples of Hip Hop veterans releasing some of the strongest work of their careers. Skyzoo came on the scene in the early 2000s and Evidence began his career with Dilated Peoples around the same time, so these are definitely two Hip Hop vets. It seems hard to keep fresh and sound invigorated when you’ve been in the game so long, but these two have stamina and somehow are still pushing Hip Hop forward while their feet are respectfully planted in the past.
Magna Carda’s To The Good People (self released) and Lewis Parker’s Frequency of Perception (Fat Beats) are two interesting albums that don’t have a ton in common really, except for that they embody the same spirit, to me, as The Roots. Magna Carda is a MC and Producer duo from Texas, who apparently have elaborate live instrumentation shows. Lewis Parker is another Hip Hop vet, the most dangerous man with a SP, and has put out the best album of the career, which also stands toe to toe with The Roots’ strongest material.
As far as which Hip Hop Classicist album stood head and shoulders above the rest, I must give this to Damu the Fudgemunk and his outstanding album Conversation Peace (Def Presse.) I dive more into the album on my personal top 10 list, but the backstory to this album is really cool and allowed him to live out a cratedigger’s dream. It’s super impressive how he was able to put together so many different samples from various styles of music paired with vocal performances from several different rappers and make it feel all so cohesive. Conversation Peace is definitely rooted in classicism but has an interesting psychedelic nature to it that I haven’t really heard before and it ends with a four song suite that is Hip Hop artistry at it’s finest.
This category is really one of the most interesting and exciting movements in Hip Hop today. There’s definitely some crossover with the Dense and Atmospheric albums discussed earlier but the ones I have identified under Lofi carve out a bit of a different space. A lot of times the artists in this category are very prolific, releasing several albums/EPs each year. Musically speaking the songs are built from short, hypnotic loops with lofi drum beats and sometimes off kilter rapping styles, these albums truly sound like not much else.
Pink Siifu and (especially) MIKE have been instrumental in pushing this style forward over the past several years and they both released my favorite albums of theirs this year. Siifu’s GUMBO‘! (Dynamite Hill) is a super strange celebration of southern Hip Hop and is really all over the place. There’s hard hitting beats one minute and strange atmospheric passages the next, but it’s all anchored down by Siifu’s fantastic flow and lyricism. MIKE’s Disco! (self released) is his most upbeat and brightest album and delivers his most confident and varied vocal performance of his career.
While Pink Siifu and MIKE delivered my favorite albums of theirs yet, H31R’s ve·loc·i·ty (self released) and Cities Aviv’s The Crashing Sound of How It Goes (D.O.T.) marked the first time I had ever heard either one. Technically I had heard half of H31R earlier in the year as the group consists of rapper maassai (who released the also great With the Shifts early on in 2021) and producer/composer JWords. The album they created is super original (it probably could’ve gone in the next category) and pushes the boundaries of Hip Hop. Cities Aviv delivers a super dense, somewhat inaccessible lofi classic that is full of amazing beats and rapping. Both are showstoppers.
These are all great releases, but my favorite of the bunch is Navy Blue‘s Navy’s Reprise (Freedom Sounds.) It’s a beautiful and stark album with great beats, lyricism and flow. It’s a bit more varied in style than some of the others and really I just love the music on this album so much. I write more about it in my top 10 list, but it’s very much worth checking out.
In Their Own Lane:
Technically speaking all the previous artists and albums could qualify for this category, but the following are the best example of those who are making the most original and inventive Hip Hop these days, period. Artistry to the highest degree in a variety of different styles, with a voice and point of view like no other.
Rejjie Snow‘s Baw Baw Black Sheep (Honeymoon) is apparently an unofficial soundtrack to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, which was conceived after doing a bunch of shrooms. It’s a fun fantasy world full of delicious treats and awesome R&B infused Hip Hop. Whereas, Moor Mother‘s Black Encyclopedia of Air (Anti-) is a much darker sonic affair that could soundtrack your next seance. Both of these are completely opposite of each other and have so little in common, except for the pure imagination and artistry that created both albums.
Ka‘s A Martyr’s Reward (Iron Works Records) and Bruiser Wolf’s Dope Game Stupid (Bruiser Brigade) are such a fun pair of artists to put together, as they too are on total opposite ends of the spectrum. Actually, they’re so different they’re on separate spectrums. Ka is monk like, a sage from another plane of existence who emerges with soft spoken raps that sound more like incantations. Whereas Bruiser Wolf is cartoonish, delivering the cleverest one liner after one liner with bravado. Both albums have lyricism that takes several listens to fully understand and appreciate.
While all of the preceeding albums are amazing and I love them all so much, JPEGMAFIA‘s LP! (offline) is without a doubt my favorite Hip Hop album of the year and the best example of an artist in their own lane. He’s so much in his own lane that there are two versions circulating out there of his most recent album. The label approved version on most streaming services and then the Peggy approved version on Bandcamp. Do yourself a favor and check out the Bandcamp version. It is full of hard beats, strange synths and amazing rapping as well as some really great melodies.
Bar None Year End Mixtape: