The best thing about being a hip-hop fan is that it exposes you to different futures. This subjection makes for an especially vital light at the end of the dark tunnel in a world on fire. Hip-hop and the myriad mutations of electronic music that the genre frequently converges with are the critical contemporary cultural lenses through which one can view the creation of new ideas and aesthetics. In an increasingly-confused world alarmingly obsessed with retro stylings and nostalgia, these cultural paradigms are where bold and brave new futures can be forged.
This year, hip-hop has been as busy and urgent as any before. From albums that address the state of our fraying social fabric to introspective and melancholic fantasias to deconstructive boundary-pushers, 2021 has provided countless thoughtful, exhilarating, and downright vital releases. Of course, numerous brilliant projects function as just thrilling entertainment, displays of hip-hop’s love of wordplay, and production that prioritize immaculate style over heady substance. Both are necessary, providing the yin to the other’s yang, while some intuitively cross over and hybridize.
Because so many incredible albums are released every year (as covered in our monthly column), no list could truly encompass every release. Not included here are wonderful releases from Ka, Isaiah Rashad, AKAI Solo, Kool Keith, Jam Baxter, Crimeapple, GRIP, Lloyd Banks, John Glacier, Dark Time Sunshine, R.A.P. Ferreria, Black Josh, JPEGMafia, Pink Siifu, Your Old Droog, Lil Nas X, Wiki and countless more. However, we hope that you will find plenty to love in the 20 albums included here and that they will give you faith in music’s ability to guide us beyond the darkness of our present moment.
20. Kojaque – Town’s Dead [Different Recordings]
This year saw Kojaque and the Soft Boy Records crew affirm their place at the top of Ireland’s impressive contemporary hip-hop scene (also check out Sons Phonetic’s Nakatomi and Nuxsense’s Time on Earth for killer 2021 releases from the Emerald Isle). Town’s Dead is an ambitious and versatile highlight, rife with neo-soul inflections, palpable emotion, and bucket loads of charisma. All the signs are pointing towards a wildly successful future for its creator.
19. The Alchemist – This Thing of Ours 2 [ALC]
In 2021 the world’s most in-demand hip-hop producer returned with the second instalment of his solo EP series – This Thing of Ours 2. Bringing Earl Sweatshirt, MIKE, Vince Staples, Bruiser Brigade, and Zelopperz along for the ride, the Alchemist crafts icy boom-bap (“Lossless”), jazz-inflected good vibes (“6 Five Heartbeats”), and string-sampled experiments (“Miracle Baby”) that rival those of any other producer in the game right now. The Alchemist had a prolific 2021, and some of his work will reappear further down this list.
18. Issa Gold – Tempus [Overland Hills Records]
One of the most sincerely emotive hip-hop albums released this year, Tempus is concise and heartfelt, defined by reflective and introspective lyrics, mellow yet dense beats, and wistful melodies. Standing in sharp contrast to the tone of Gold’s more manic Underachievers project, Tempus possesses a deep vein of thoughtful melancholy, best surmised by the memorable, borderline-Shakespearian refrain of “Options”. “Questioning this life, should I stay or should I go / World on fire, tryna breathe through the smoke.”
17. Kam-Bu – Black on Black [Atlas Artists]
This is one of the most exciting 2021 releases by a young British rapper. Kam-Bu’s Black on Black fuses drill, grime, trap, and experimental electronica in service of a futuristic concoction that exudes artistry and urgency. With a tonal palette ranging from the incendiary title track to the cold drill of “Call Me Back”, Black on Black’s ten songs create the thrilling soundtrack to a troubled, broken world.
16. Hus KingPin – Bolio: Reze Pelo Rio [Independent]
A short, violent, and cinematic sojourn to Rio De Janeiro – Bolio: Reze Pelo Rio is something of an epic in miniature. The prolific Hus Kingpin released four full-lengths this year, all of which are excellent, particularly the eerie, experimental Portishus. However, Bolio: Reze Pelo Rio is the most endearing and engrossing, rife with danger (“Justice for Jaca”), romance (“Mab’s”), and grandeur (“Welcome to Brasil”). The wide-screen vistas are remarkably realized and make for an unforgettable gangster classic.