Arts & Life

Top 25 hip-hop/rap albums of 2021: 10-1

Feb. 15, 2022, 7:16 p.m.

2021 was a thrilling year for hip-hop. After the onset of the pandemic reduced the commercial viability of records and tours in 2020, many album release dates were pushed back. But 2021 saw no shortage in both quantity and quality of work released, with many of the commercial heavyweights in the genre — Drake, J. Cole and Kanye West, to name a few — finally returning to share their newest works. Anybody who says that hip-hop is getting worse over time clearly has not heard everything there is to offer. The past year’s creativity, diversity and execution across styles, sounds and sub-genres were 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 present a complete and final overview of the best hip-hop music of 2021. My goal is to 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.

10. Topaz Jones: “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma

Few artists last year put together albums so rich in storytelling, taste and versatility as Topaz Jones’ “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma.” Across the tracklist, Topaz floats between sounds of groove, funk, neo-soul, R&B and hard rap with an admirable ease. Complemented by an award-winning independent short film of the same name, the album is much more than just a random compilation of songs. Every track is filled with soul and purpose, and it all comes together to highlight the strengths of Topaz’s artistry both as a musician and a creative visionary.

Favorite Songs: “Black Tame,” “Sourbelts,” “D.O.A.,” “Gold,” “Amphetamines”

9. Navy Blue: “Navy’s Reprise

Sage Elsesser, professional skateboarder turned rapper and producer, has grown marvelously into hip-hop under the moniker “Navy Blue.” He has become one of the sharpest lyricists and best underground producers in just a short time. There is an intangible personal feel to the album that keeps it consistently engaging. “Navy’s Reprise” is a warm and nostalgic collection, and, despite the typically mellow nature of the sounds, the album is full of passion, soul and hope. 

Favorite Songs: “God’s Magnetic Pull,” “Code of Honor,” “My Whole Life,” “Light,” “Petty Cash,” “Ritual”

8. slowthai: “TYRON 

The U.K. continues to make more of a splash in the international hip-hop scene, and great albums like slowthai’s “TYRON” have firmly established the country’s artists as consistent producers of elite records. The album follows a unique structure: the first half contains upbeat and hard-hitting tracks, where slowthai address trials and tribulations with sentiments ranging from fury to chaotic braggadocio. The second half of the album contains intimate, introspective and emotional tracks like “i tried” and “feel away,” showing love, sadness and hopelessness. It is rare to see albums effectively hit such a range and depth of emotions as “TYRON” did.

Favorite Songs: “feel away,” “i tried,” “MAZZA,” “45 SMOKE,” “CANCELLED,”

7. J. Cole: “The Off-Season 

2021 saw Cole release his best work since 2016’s “4 Your Eyez Only.” Despite being marketed and built up as a precursor to “The Fall Off” (J. Cole’s anticipated retirement album and expected magnum opus), “The Off-Season” brought great music and flashes of depth. It is rare to see this kind of hunger from rappers so late into their career. Songs like “Close” and “Punchin’ The Clock” served as reminders that Cole still remains near the top when it comes to storytelling in rap music. Cole’s delivery and writing is as strong throughout this album as it’s been at any point in his career. 

Favorite Songs: “Close,” “The Climb Back,” “Punchin’ The Clock,” “My Life,” “Hunger on Hillside,” “95 South,” “Applying Pressure” 

6. Vince Staples: “Vince Staples

Vince Staples’ self-titled album was the ultimate slow-burn record of summer 2021. Few albums ran as smoothly and cohesively as this one did. It is not the most astounding or mind-blowing collection to listen to, but Staples executed flawlessly. Despite the very short runtime, the album still benefits from great depth and personal touch provided by the narratives within the tracks and the skits. “Vince Staples” was a key addition to the discography of an under-appreciated modern great in hip-hop. 

Favorite Songs: “Are You With That?,” “Sundown Town,” “Law Of Averages,” “Taking Trips”

5. Boldy James & The Alchemist: “Bo Jackson 

“Bo Jackson” might just be the greatest project to come out of Boldy James’ discography, which is saying a lot. The Detroit rapper has been one of the most impressive and prominent figures of the underground scene, producing many strong projects over the last two years. The Alchemist’s production was incredible, and the chemistry between the rapper and producer on this record was omnipresent. Gritty street tales and unrelenting authenticity with an effortless artistic touch made “Bo Jackson” one of the most special albums of last year. 

Favorite Songs: “Double Hockey Sticks,” “Diamond Dallas,” “Flight Risk,” “Illegal Search & Seizure,” “Brickmile To Montana” 

4. Kanye West: “Donda 

Few albums have ever held such a magnitude and presence in their rollout. From Kanye literally living inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, to the multiple sold-out stadium crowd sellout previews of the collection in Chicago and Atlanta, to the constant memes around the album’s formation and creation process, the internet was consumed for weeks. Despite the absolutely sprawling size of “Donda” (at 32 songs and two hours, 11 minutes on the deluxe), there is a surprisingly little amount of filler: nearly every track is purposeful or brings something unique to the record. It’s not perfectly structured or put together, but Kanye compiled another wonderful collection of music infused with as much passion and soul as he’s ever put into his music. The “Donda” era of Kanye West will never be forgotten, as he truly made another phase of larger-than-life extravagance that will hold space in the history of modern hip-hop’s timeline.

Favorite Songs: “Hurricane,” “Life of the Party,” “Off The Grid,” “Jesus Lord,” “Jail,” “Praise God,” “Believe What I Say,” “Moon”

3. Maxo Kream: “Weight of the World

“Weight of the World” is one of the most deeply personal, soulful and versatile modern trap albums. The production is consistently impressive, putting together interesting blends of trap beats, soul samples and variations in instrumentation. There’s a strong technical performance from Maxo, but the most special aspect of the album is the profound and impassioned delivery that comes on the deeper cuts. Coping with loss and the pain of struggle, all of the emotions poured into the album were conveyed masterfully. The storytelling across the project is really a triumph for trap, and for hip-hop in general, diving into everything from the struggles of childhood poverty to criminal influences. Maxo’s latest album is genuinely a standout not just for 2021, but for the past decade of trap music.

Favorite Songs: “Mama’s Purse,” “Cee Cee,” “Trips,” “Believe,” “What I Look Like,” “Whole Lotta,” “Greener Knots,” “Don’t Play With Shawty Ass,” “They Say,” “Streets Alone,” “Big Persona”

2. Tyler, The Creator: “Call Me If You Get Lost 

The talent and creativity of Tyler, The Creator has invigorated all of music over the last decade. “Call Me If You Get Lost” is a tasteful victory lap that finds Tyler at the peak of both his rapping and artistry. Tyler is truly a world-maker, with each of his last three efforts placing the listener into a wonderful narrative with a thorough and complementary soundscape. His newest character, the globetrotting and eclectic Tyler Baudelaire, has limits in neither excellence nor personal and sonic exploration. Despite the incredibly high bar he has set for himself as of late, his most recent collection might just be the most refined of them all. Tyler now firmly sits at the pinnacle of hip-hop and has become a generational creative icon.

Favorite Songs: “Juggernaut,” “Safari,” “Wusyaname,” “Sweet / I Thought You Wanted To Dance,” “Wilshire,” “Hot Wind Blows,” “Corso”

1. Little Simz: “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert 

“Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” is one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. No brief write-up could do the excellence of this album justice; it doesn’t lack in any way. Little Simz’ last album, “Grey Area,” is already a modern classic in my eyes, and her ability to surpass that album is truly remarkable. “SIMBI” has a genuine cinematic feel and has a greatness that extends beyond just music, with incredible creative direction throughout everything relating to the album’s rollout and visuals. I’ve preached for years now that Simz is a generational, all-time talent, and “SIMBI” brought everything together to give full credibility to that take. Little Simz firmly established herself as one of the greatest modern artists in hip-hop with one of the most wonderful records that I have ever heard.

Favorite Songs: “Two Worlds Apart,” “Woman,” “Introvert,” “Miss Understood,” “I See You,” “Rollin Stone,” “I Love You, I Hate You,” “Little Q, Pt. 2,” “Never Make Promises,” “Standing Ovation,” “Point and Kill,” “Fear No Man”

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Nick Sligh is a Junior from Athens, Georgia, studying Economics and International Relations. Nick is always open to discuss anything relating to music, NBA basketball, and movies/TV. As somebody with a deep interest in hip-hop/rap and r&b music, Nick covers these genres through his articles. Feel free to contact him at nsligh 'at' stanforddaily.com

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