2021 was a thrilling year for hip-hop. After the onset of the pandemic reduced commercial viability of records and tours in 2020, many release dates were pushed back across the board. 2021, however, saw no shortage in both the quantity and the quality of work being released, with many of the commercial heavyweights in the genre — Drake, J. Cole and Kanye West, to name a few — finally returning to offer their newest works. Anybody who says that hip-hop is getting worse over time clearly has not heard everything it has to offer. The past year’s creativity, diversity and execution across styles, sounds and sub-genres was truly something special, and it’s really incredible to sit back and look at every project put together in retrospect. My column “New Music with Nick” already focuses on a handful of the new releases in the genre as they are coming out, but I wanted to put together this ranking to cover the breadth of all of the fantastic 2021 releases, for a sense of completeness and finality. The goal is to help recap some of the best works that came out in hip-hop/rap during last year, with a holistic view and an open ear to absolutely everything that the genre had to offer.
25. Paris Texas: “BOY ANONYMOUS”
Coincidentally, the first three albums on my ranking were all some of the most chaotic releases of rap last year. “BOY ANONYMOUS” was an incredibly exciting debut from the electric Los Angeles duo Louie Pastel and Felix. Effortlessly fusing elements of punk and metal into its sound, the album is refreshing, fun and exciting from start to finish — not to mention the comedic aspects of the duo’s effortlessly funny bars. Paris Texas quickly came onto the scene and made noise, with good reason.
Favorite Songs: “FORCE OF HABIT,” “HEAVY METAL,” “BETTER DAYS”
24. JPEGMAFIA: “LP!”
Controlled chaos is a good way to describe a lot of JPEGMAFIA’s music. “LP!” was another abstract yet refined showing from one of rap’s more interesting figures, offering a wide variety of experimentation and fun. Jpeg has successfully found a niche audience that appreciates his eclectic style and persona, and he has continued to build with authenticity in his vision and no desire to leave the kind of genre-bending music he wants to make. Although maybe not the most universally appealing project, it’s obvious that Peggy is good at what he does and has found an undeniable comfort in his artistry.
Favorite Songs: “REBOUND!,” “BMT!,” “BALD! REMIX,” “OG!,” “SICK, NERVOUS, & BROKE!”
23. Baby Keem: “The Melodic Blue”
Baby Keem’s “The Melodic Blue” was the source of a couple of the most iconic music moments of 2021. One of the best songs of the whole year, “family ties,” brought the long-awaited return of Keem’s older cousin Kendrick Lamar with a legendary feature verse and one of the most captivating music videos that I’ve seen in recent years. “Range Brothers” brought another iconic Kendrick feature and a triumphant track with its fair share of absurdity and comic relief. The only thing holding the album from greatness is a lack of consistency: despite the incredible high points on the album, there is too much filler, as well as a handful of bad or mediocre songs. Kendrick Lamar’s younger cousin has a long way to go in his career, but has laid the foundation now for greatness to come.
Favorite Songs: “family ties,” “scapegoats,” “16,” “range brothers,” “scars,” “trademark usa,”
22. Mick Jenkins: “Elephant In The Room”
Chicago’s Mick Jenkins has become a veteran leader for conscious underground hip-hop, bringing steady quality for nearly a decade. Despite the steady growth of his audience, Mick has continued to largely provide the underground with high-level, conscious hip-hop, and his newest effort is no different. “Elephant In The Room” offers some of the best lyricism, songwriting and delivery across any album from 2021. The album might be Mick’s strongest offering since his iconic mixtape “The Water(s),” one of the past decade’s stronger hip-hop projects.
Favorite Songs: “Contacts,” “Truffles,” “Reflections,” “D.U.I,” “Gucci Tried to Tell Me”
21. Nas: “Magic”
Nearly 20 years after the release of “Illmatic,” Nas continues to push onward at an incredible pace. The third release of the Queens rapper since the start of 2020, “Magic” is the most cohesive of these recent works. “Wave Gods” alone was probably Nas’s best song in at least a decade. Hit-Boy’s production built a steady foundation for Nas’s ever-strong penmanship. He clearly understands where he is with his legacy and raps from the elder, wiser, conscious, righteous and more reflective persona that he’s built.
Favorite Songs: “Wave Gods,” “40-16 Building,” “The Truth,” “Wu for the Children”
20. Kenny Mason: “Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut”
Creating and mastering a personal aesthetic is something that artists often struggle with for an entire career, but Kenny Mason doesn’t fit that stereotype. Despite being only one year removed from the release of his official debut album, Kenny Mason is already in full control of the style, sound, image and niche that he is carving out for himself. The typically hazy aura and the lo-fi deliveries and production choices all blend together to create a soundscape that fits effortlessly. “4ever” is one of the most impassioned and fantastic lyrical displays of the last few years. “Much Money,” the soul-sample-based and Freddie Gibbs assisted track, also ended up being one of the best songs to come from hip-hop last year, with effortless flows and constant energy. “Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut” contains some of the highest highs from any album of 2021 and firmly positions Kenny Mason as one of the most intriguing, emerging artists in hip-hop.
Favorite Songs: “4ever,” “Much Money,” “A+,” “Storm”
19. Brockhampton: “Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine”
The past few years have been chaotic for the Texas hip-hop group and self-proclaimed “America’s Favorite Boy Band.” Following sexual misconduct allegations against Ameer Vann and his departure from the collective, “Ginger” was released as a rather underwhelming melancholy effort. “Roadrunner” finally became an artistic redemption for the group, bringing their best project together since the “Saturation” series. With the exception of a run of mediocre tracks in the middle of the album, the latest (and potentially final) album from Brockhampton brought some of the strongest work of their career.
Favorite Songs: “When I Ball,” “Chain On,” “The Light Pt. II,” “Windows”
18. DJ Muggs & Rome Streetz: “Death & The Magician”
Easily one of the best underground releases of 2021, “Death & The Magician” was a fantastic journey across DJ Muggs’s refined production and Rome Streetz’s elite writing and delivery. The New York rapper has been bringing his authentic sound to the underground for years now, and this one stands out as easily one of the best projects in his discography. The dark, murky production and grimy bars bring out all of Rome Streetz’s strengths and see him shine in the bleak aesthetics.
Favorite Songs: “Prayers Over Packages,” “Shooting At The Dance Hall,” “Stone Cold Soul,” “Zig Zag Zig”
17. Wiki: “Half God”
“Half God” was one of the sharpest and deeply personal portrayals that have been offered in hip-hop in recent years. Wiki’s latest album is a deep dive into his coming-of-age story as a young man and an artist in New York City. Everything is conveyed with unrelenting authenticity. Wiki truly is gifted with his songwriting, delivery and ability to express his emotions precisely and vividly. With production handled entirely by Navy Blue, the chemistry is in sync from front to back, with few (if any) lapses in cohesiveness and structure. Nearly everything properly came together to help this project stand out and highlight his strengths.
Favorite Songs: “Home,” “Can’t Do This Alone,” “Promised,” “Grape Soda,” “All I Need”
16. Pink Siifu: “GUMBO’!”
To truly understand this album, you just have to listen to it. “GUMBO’!” has some of the most fun, exciting and abstract hip-hop complemented by some of the most smooth, soulful, jazzy hip-hop that you can find. Pink Siifu is basically what happens when you mix trap, soul, psychedelics, jazz, abstraction, chaos, enlightenment and the deep South. From the chaotic burst of “Wayans Bros.” to the bouncy hype of “Big Ole” to the swagger and smooth flows of “Call tha Bro (Tapped In),” Pink Siifu is never out of his comfort zone. Through the intentionally muddled portrayals, Pink Siifu effortlessly navigates through every sound he touches and never loses his Southern charm.
Favorite Songs: “Call tha Bro (Tapped In),” “Wayans Bros.,” “Scurrrrd,” “Big Ole,” “SMILE (wit yo Gold)”
15. Big Ghost Ltd & Conway the Machine: “If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed”
Griselda just keeps winning. Each of the three core members of the group drops elite projects every passing year. The brand is starting to grow its cult underground following to a more broad appeal and is slowly breaking into the mainstream of hip-hop. Conway’s chemistry with Big Ghost was flawless, with the production foundation being not only entertaining but also highly cohesive and well-structured. With Conway, the pen will always be sharp. All of the other elements of his artistry and Big Ghost’s production came into place to make this one of the strongest projects from the Griselda crew last year.
Favorite Songs: “Sons of Kings,” “Kill All Rats,” “Highly Praised,” “Way We Move”
14. Mach-Hommy: “Pray For Haiti”
“Pray For Haiti” is an impressive and well-executed blend of Mach-Hommy’s proud personal identity as a Haitian American and his artistic identity as an elite lyricist who excels over the vintage grimy Griselda production. With Griselda founder and label-mate Westside Gunn as the executive producer, “Pray For Haiti” pays homage to Gunn’s 2020 album “Pray For Paris,” taking some inspiration in style and sound but largely building out and forming an entirely new portrayal of his stories. Few projects are designed with such intricacy and cohesiveness between individualized details, sharp writing and effective deliveries.
Favorite Songs: “Kriminel,” “The 26th Letter,” “Rami,” “Magnum Band,” “Au Revoir,” “Marie”
13. Lute: “Gold Mouf”
Four years after his Dreamville Records debut, Lute finally returned to give the Dreamville label its second release of the year, following their blockbuster with J. Cole’s “The Off-Season.” From start to finish, “Gold Mouf” is from the heart and clearly focused. The Southern smoothness of Lute’s artistry blends effortlessly with the soulful instrumentals. Consistency and coherence are ever-present, giving the album no weak spots or low-points. Lute has made a clear stance with this album — he is simply going to make what he loves to make, and he has no desire to do anything just for sales. There’s no desire from him to be a commercial superstar for Dreamville, and he is fine sitting back and focusing on the deeper aspects of his artistry.
Favorite Songs: “Life,” “Birdsong,” “Be Okay,” “100,” “GED (Gettin Every Dolla),” “Ghetto Love,” “Flossin’,” “Crashing”
12. Westside Gunn: “HWH8: Side B”
Interestingly enough, the B-Side of Westside Gunn’s most recent album was the stronger tracklist, providing more quality from front to back than its original version (which was already a very solid project). “Side B” offered its typical Westside Gunn collection of grimy beats and soul samples, which are executed with such comfort and precision that they don’t really get old. As to be expected from an ultimate curator like Westside Gunn, the feature list is quite impressive, and it carries the album into being a great one. Elite featured performances from artists like Tyler, The Creator; 2 Chainz and Griselda label-mates Benny and Conway pair with the fantastic production to make this album one of the more enjoyable Griselda projects of late.
Favorite Songs: “The Fly who couldn’t Fly straight,” “Hell on Earth, Pt. 2,” “Richies,” “Forest Lawn,” “Ostertag,” “Munch”
11. Isaiah Rashad: “The House Is Burning”
Chattanooga’s Isaiah Rashad returned from a five-year hiatus with one of the most awaited releases of the entire year. His most recent effort effectively took him from an artist with a majority cult following to somebody who now firmly sits in the mainstream. “The House Is Burning” effectively combined Zay’s smooth, soulful sound on tracks — like “HB2U” and “Headshots (4r Da Locals)” — with an adventurous and Southern trap–influenced sound present on “From The Garden” and “Lay Wit Ya.” To start his career, Isaiah has provided fans with a trio of impressive albums, each with something special to offer.
Favorite Songs: “HB2U,” “Headshots (4r Da Locals),” “RIP Young,” “True Story,” “From The Garden”
Click here for a Spotify Playlist of some of my favorite songs across the year 2021.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.