The 10 Best Rap Albums Of 2021
In 2021, the grand and majestic rap stars all let us down. Drake made another commercial megalith, an album that dominated charts to an absurd degree, and it was just OK. Kanye West made a vast weeks-long spectacle of his album release, and the album itself was just OK. J. Cole made a pretty good J. Cole album, which isn’t letting us down per se, but it’s not lighting anyone’s world on fire, either. Kendrick Lamar, once again, did not release an album.
But rap music is not defined by what the biggest stars happen to be doing at any particular moment. It’s defined by teenagers snarling at video cameras on YouTube, by chaotic Verzuz nostalgia-fests in which beloved old stars get into good-natured shit-talk competitions, by whatever happens to be banging out of the nearest car window on a sunny afternoon. Rap is too big, and too anarchic, to be tied to the big stars and to their precisely calibrated rollout machines. As ever, the real action is in the corners, and rap music is practically all corners.
Rap music is a subjective thing, and no two fans will have the same year-end lists. This particular subjective year-end list is one old man’s opinion, and it’s weighted heavily toward the arty, expressionist old-man boom-bap LPs that continue to dominate a certain part of the music-critic internet. (The Alchemist makes multiple appearances on this list, just as he did last year. I’m predictable like that.) But great rap records can take any form. They can be broad but personal pop statements, dystopian trap parties, or metallic industrial freakouts. They can be anything. Here’s what hit me hardest this year.
2021 was EST Gee’s year. The Louisville rapper, a former football prospect who’s survived more than his share of tragedy and violence, had a handful of mixtapes to his name before coming out with Bigger Than Life Or Death, but the new album marked him as a magnetic new presence. Gee’s voice is a fatalistic seen-it-all mutter, and he talks about near-death experiences with chilly detachment, like a weary gunslinger. Even alongside stars like Future and Lil Baby, Gee resonates. He’s a rap game Jake “The Snake” Roberts — an ominous figure who speaks quietly and forces you to lean in and listen.
Back in his Ratking days, Manhattan gargle-sneer specialist Wiki came off as a free-range skate-rat urchin who would’ve been right at home as a Kids extra. These days, the older and wiser Wiki still has that anarchic energy, but he’s found ways to turn it inwards, considering his place in the world and the endangerment of his old, weird New York. On Half God, rapping exclusively over Navy Blue’s loose and hazy beatscapes, Wiki turns thoughtful and introspective without losing his hungry-hyena edge.
Montreal’s Backxwash is an extremist. She raps in a feral bark over harsh, heavy industrial and metal samples, and she never sounds anything less than furious. But Backxwash’s music isn’t just intense and experimental. It’s hard, too. She talks about being an African-born Black trans woman, and that’s a valuable perspective to have. But she also sounds like she’s ready to beat a motherfucker up, and her music works on the same visceral gut level that powers virtually all truly great rap music.
Tyler, The Creator has always loved rap, but Call Me If You Get Lost, from the bellowing DJ Drama ad-libs on down, stands as Tyler’s true love letter to rap in all its messy and multifarious forms. Tyler continues to play with form and melody and persona, and he also gets into fantasy casting: What if 42 Dugg went in over mutant marching-band funk? What if NBA YoungBoy did early-’90s loverman rap? How about Lil Uzi Vert trying Neptunes-style space-blorp alongside an on-fire Pharrell? Altogether, it coheres as the only A-list rap album of 2021 that feels like a complete statement rather than a work of brand maintenance.
On Balens Cho, the second of the two albums he released this year, Mach-Hommy claimed that he’d made more money from physical than Olivia Newton-John. This used to be the enigmatic Newark rapper’s method: He’d sell copies of his albums for hundreds of dollars, keeping those records off of streaming services. This year, though, Mach reunited with his once-estranged friend Westside Gunn and released Pray For Haiti on Gunn’s Griselda label, granting a whole new audience an opportunity to hear his calm, hypnotic deep-concentration Haitian-identity jams. It helps that Pray For Haiti is probably Mach’s best album, a mean but mellow reverie full of sharp-elbowed punchlines about python trenchcoats and making Meghan Markle hop out and get the Dutches.
Last Christmas, Playboi Carti did not give us his heart. He didn’t even give that to Iggy Azalea. Instead, Carti gave us something better: an hour of blown-out, pill-gobbling brain-melt jibber-jabber. Whole Lotta Red launches Carti’s squeaky yammer into space, forcing him to navigate mutant rave keyboard-blurts and bass-squelches so thunderous that they would’ve unmoored any rapper. They unmoored Carti, too, but Carti is at his best when he’s unmoored. Carti has never been a classical rapper, and there are precious few quotable lines on Whole Lotta Red, though I like when he says that we can’t understand him because he’s speaking hieroglyphics. But when Carti sounds like he’s been sucked into a magical drug hurricane, there’s nobody better.
Rap music doesn’t really have a center, no matter what Drake might think. But in its chaotic landscape, rap does have something resembling a mainstream, and Armand Hammer have never been anywhere near that mainstream. For years, Elucid and billy woods have made abstract, fiery music so dense and jagged that they’ve really existed in their own space. So it’s exciting to see Armand Hammer teaming up with the Alchemist, a producer who made Jadakiss’ biggest solo hit and who serves as Eminem’s tour DJ. Alchemist occupies his own particular space, too, and his music works just fine alongside dense abstraction. But Haram still brings Armand Hammer closer to the present-day rap conversation without sacrificing their own spiky originality. It’s a complex, layered record, but it also gives us the opportunity to hear Elucid and woods just rap, and they’re great at that.
In 2020, the weary-sounding Detroit veteran Boldy James had an astonishing year, releasing four different albums in collaboration with four different producers. All of them were great. Two of them made this list. Boldy only released one album in 2021, and he made it count. Re-teaming with the Alchemist, one of his oldest collaborators, Boldy went deep into his zone. On Bo Jackson, Boldy’s eye is sharp, and his voice is ravaged. He tells sad and gripping crime-life stories over Alchemist’s lush, cinematic boom-bap, and even guests like Earl Sweatshirt, Freddie Gibbs, and Roc Marciano can’t touch his gravitas. Boldy and Alchemist’s collaborative style isn’t broke. Here’s hoping they never fix it.
On past records, Ka, the monastic Brooklyn fire chief who’s built a mythic and awe-inspiring DIY rap catalog as if it were a simple side hustle, has spoken in allegory. Ka’s great subject — the dehumanizing condition of being Black in America — hasn’t changed, but his ways of addressing that subject have. Ka has used concepts like samurai code or Greek mythology as framing devices, ways to access deeper and darker truths. But on A Martyr’s Reward, Ka sets those devices aside and simply speaks from experience. His music is still wise and allusive, and he still builds hypnotic beds of deep-nod samples for his craggy voice, but his sadness and anger come across with a sharp, hard new clarity. For now, there’s no layer between Ka’s audience and the man’s heartbreak.
Do you know how hard it is to make a truly great rap album in 2021? In its current iteration, mainstream rap exists as fodder for the algorithm, fuel for habit-forming streaming-service background-music playlists. This is not a healthy state of affairs. The music, for the most part, is soothing and ephemeral, a softly thrumming soundtrack to the branding exercises and soap-opera storylines that have supplanted the music itself as the main attractions. Eventually, something will come along and shake up that status quo. For now, though, the depressive Chicago melodist Polo G navigates this desiccated landscape with a grace and pathos that nobody else can touch.
In the sound of circa-now rap, Polo has found a vehicle for sadness and exhilaration. Polo makes hits, and he keeps the virtual cash registers humming, but he’s also pulled off the miracle of transmogrifying commerce into art, using cynical tools for idealistic ends. On Hall Of Fame, his most high-profile album yet, Polo’s big-name collaborators scramble to keep up. I wonder if they look at this young man and realize that this is who they could be. Polo G is not a big personality, and he doesn’t need to be one. He keeps telling his tender truths, and the world keeps stopping to listen. That’s how this thing is supposed to work.