August was an interesting month in hip-hop. Perhaps in relation to the current emotional tenor of Western society, a number of the key albums released in the genre this month express feelings of deep melancholy and vulnerability. Kanye West’s overwrought Donda is the obvious example. However, Ka’s A Martyr’s Reward is also similarly conflicted and brittle, as is GRIP’s self-reflective and anxious I Died For This?
Less melancholy but equally jittery is Homeboy Sandman’s off-kilter Anjelitu. Trippie Redd’s Trip at Knight is manic and crazed, totally in sync with our frantically accelerating cultural landscape. Even Nas’ generally-up tempo King’s Disease II is highly introspective and often profoundly nostalgic. Perhaps the events of the last 18 months have caught up with us, and we see the confusion and chaos reflected through the different styles of this most socially conscious of genres.
Below are ten of the best hip-hop albums of August 2021, each of which reveals truths about our strange, alarming, but often exciting contemporary socio-cultural landscape.
Nas – King’s Disease II (Mass Appeal)
Nas needs no introduction. The veteran has comfortably cemented his position as an all-time great via a body of work that contains some of the finest examples of the art of hip-hop. His technical abilities and storytelling are second to none, and his latest full-length King’s Disease II sees him place these famously formidable skills within the context of the contemporary hip-hop landscape.
The weak link in Nas’ career has often been his choice in producers, who’ve given some projects a lazy, slapdash feel. However, King’s Disease II contains vibrant and cohesive production from Hit-Boy, which allows Nas to deliver some of the most confident and engrossing work he’s crafted in years. Track highlights see Nas looking back on his wild life – “Death Row East” tackles his complex relationship with Tupac Shakur, while “Store Run” is a classic hip-hop reflection on his rise to the top. Throw in some top-tier guest appearances from Eminem, Lauryn Hill, and EPMD, and you get an all-around excellent and focused album from this genre master.
Homeboy Sandman – Anjelitu (Mello Music Group)
The definition of idiosyncratic – Homeboy Sandman has carved out a career defined by both its prolific output as well as an un-pindownable style. Across roughly a dozen studio releases, his dexterous rapping style shifts between relaxed and urgent, speeding up or slowing down like a new car smoothly shifting gears. His latest release, the six-track EP Anjelitu, sees him wholly embracing these myriad different personality traits.
The EP’s title is a portmanteau of a childhood nickname and the taijitu – the Chinese symbol for yin and yang, in other words – opposing polarities in unison that mirrors Homeboy Sandman’s unpindownable style. Featuring quirky production work from Aesop Rock, Anjelitu lurches from the rapid-fire kineticism of “Cow’s Milk” to the bouncy “FYI’ to “No Beef”s weirdo G-funk. It adds up to an odd collection of songs, but one that’s simultaneously memorable and strangely endearing.
Creatures of Habit – Parasites Paradise (Real Life Drama Records)
For fans of underground UK hip-hop, Creatures of Paradise are something of a supergroup. Its three members (Eric the Red, Sean Peng, and Illinformed) are hugely exciting prospects. Eric the Red’s Caught Red Handed (2018) was an excellent debut, while Illinformed has produced for Jedi Mind Tricks, Onyx, and KRS-One. Both are also brothers of the Four Owls member Leaf Dog, whose label Real Life Drama Records Parasites Paradise drops on.
While the Four Owls and High Focus Records are still going strong, there’s a sense of a baton being passed here. Creatures of Habit’s aesthetic and tone are similar to their (in this case literal) brethren – the instrumentals are jazzy and laid-back, while the lyrics tilt between bravado and paranoia, all encased in a cloud of weed smoke. Illinformed’s production work is consistently clean and elegant, specifically the cheeky, bouncy jazz of “Two Tokes”, “Bugs Life”, and “Alone”. Parasites Paradise is a solid release by these young upstarts, and time will tell whether or not they can usurp their kings.
Ka – A Martyr’s Reward (Iron Man Records)
Sparse, soulful, and emotionally resonant – A Martyr’s Reward might be Ka’s masterpiece. The New York auteur has long been a critical darling, praised for his elaborate concept albums and philosophical lyrics. On A Martyr’s Reward, he takes his fascinations and obsessions as far as he’s ever taken them before, crafting a work defined by complex emotions, intricate lyrical deliveries, and stunning production work.
Ka has acted as his own producer for much of this second wave of his career (his debut solo album was released in 2008, over a decade after his stints in Natural Elements and Nightbreed), and A Martyr’s Reward sees him distill his production down to its most ambient and mysterious form. There’s few drum beats on the whole album, tracks like “Peace Peace Peace” and “Like Me” see Ka tell his confessional and searching lyrics over compelling sound collages. When some form of beats do appear, on “I Need All That” and “We Living”, they’re skeletal and brittle, matching Ka’s similarly delicate emotional focus. A Martyr’s Reward may well be the veteran’s finest hour, which is saying something given his mighty back catalogue.
Boldy James & The Alchemist – Bo Jackson (ALC Records)
There’s an argument to be made that says Boldy James and the Alchemist are the best team-up in modern hip-hop. Their previous collaboration, 2020’s The Price of Tea in China, was one of last year’s best albums. It’s a sprawling and psychedelic masterwork that rose above the already-stellar crop of Griselda projects with whom James is affiliated. Bo Jackson picks up where that album left off, continuing the duos’ bold, experimental and captivating brand of modern hip-hop.
Bo Jackson succeeds because its eclecticism never feels forced. The Alchemist’s colorful and unpredictable beats shift from cold to grandiose to surreal, while James’ lyrics tell evocative tales of a tough life on the Detroit streets. These two poles – the psychedelic and the gritty – make for an intoxicating combination, one whose rich vibrancy is endlessly rewarding. Throw in some top-tier guest spots (including Earl Sweatshirt, Freddie Gibbs, and an especially great Curren$y), and you’ve got one of the best hip-hop albums of the year so far.