2021 can be defined by both quality and quantity and as we dive head first into a busy season of releases we’ve taken stock of the best rap projects so far in a bumper year for music.
In the past year and a half, it’s been an open secret that the heaviest hitters in music had been clutching onto their work until shows returned. It’s no coincidence that as the world opens up we’ve seen announcements from Kendrick Lamar about his final TDE release, an album from Drake and multiple listening parties to go alongside Kanye West’s DONDA.
However, even in the absence of some of the biggest names during the pandemic, we’ve had one of the strongest years for rap music in recent memory. From throwbacks to the mixtape era to guitar-championing takes on hip hop the sound and aesthetic of rap music is becoming diversified to the point where two releases on the same list can share almost nothing. It’s testament to the acts pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and a result of a generation raised on the internet that were plunged further into its depths over lockdown.
In no particular order, here are the 20 best rap projects of 2021 so far.
Tyler, The Creator doesn’t do the never-ending social media teasing that’s now ingrained in the culture, his music rarely leaks and the West Coast rapper barely speaks on his forthcoming material until it’s ready to buss. It’s refreshing in a world where listeners are endlessly teased with flexing on IG Lives, cryptic messaging and often empty promises. Sometimes you just need two week’s notice to get a lightning jolt of excitement about a forthcoming album that you know will drop (looking at you Kanye).
Within two weeks of teasing CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST it was out in the world and the snappy delivery really accentuated the unexpected, but welcome shouts of DJ Drama.
For T, music is a careful balancing act. CMIYGL sees Tyler nod to mixtape culture and his Odd Future days (‘MANIFESTO’) whilst uplifting new artists in Teezo Touchdown and future stars in Brent Faiyaz.The album acknowledges history from the front seat of one of his many vintage vehicles without fixating too closely in the rear view.
Dave has been on quite the ride in the past five years. In his rendition of ‘Black‘ at the Brit Awards he provided one of the most chilling live performances of the last decade and simultaneously put Boris Johnston in his place. Meanwhile the accompanying album Pyschodrama nabbed the Mercury Prize after he reached the top of the charts with ‘Funky Friday’.
While it’s become part and parcel of TikTok humour to pick fun at fans in awe of his wordplay, the memes exist for a reason. Dave’s lyrical dexterity on We’re All Alone In This Together is on another astral plane and to level up in the aftermath of a hugely celebrated debut is further evidence of his rising star power.
While rap has been around in the UK for the guts of three decades, alongside Stormzy, AJ Tracey and other chart toppers, Dave is pushing it into unchartered territories. With his stock on rise stateside, Dave’s sophomore album is quietly whispering into the ears of the GRAMMYs that it might just be ready to become the first UK rap album to earn a nomination.
The dark sorcery of Mach-Hommy’s vivid rap masterpiece Pray For Haiti is underpinned by esoteric bars that breed a sense of foreboding without the need for analysis. Powered by the selection of soul samples and the unmistakeable ad libs of Griselda’s Westside Gunn (who also executively produced the record) the project unwinds slowly leaving listeners sticking to the enigmatic New Jersey rapper’s every word.
As Armand Hammer, ELUCID and billy woods, two of the east coast underground’s finest joined forces with another prolific act in The Alchemist on Haram. The pair’s disdain for white corporate America and the Alchemist’s grisly production provides the perfect footing to unleash a barrage of brutalist examinations of taboo subjects.
Laced with personal, no-holds-barred accounts of experiences that were as informative as they were traumatic, the duo cut through smoke-filled cuts with razor sharp examinations of, as the album suggests, forbidden topics. The record also features excellent guest offerings from Quelle Chris, Earl Sweatshirt, KAYANA and more.
Doja Cat’s omnivorous diet of rapping and singing has permeated every crevasse of the internet. The Los Angeles born artist loves to lull listeners into a false sense of security and behind the sugary exterior of Planet Her and her shitposting are bars that obliterate the unprepared and go over the heads of those infatuated by the sound selection.
For as much is said about Doja’s online savviness and ability to cook up TikTok hits at will, it’s worth making the point in a year where some of the world’s biggest stars avoided dropping albums she took the opportunity to take over.
Skater, model, rapper, is there anything Sage Elsesser can’t do?
While keen observers became familiar with the New York based artist through his association with Earl Sweatshirt and contribution to Frank Ocean’s Blonde, he’s carved out a following and a lane in his own right through his previous two projects Àdá Irin and Song of Sage: Post Panic!.
Navy’s Reprise maintains the multi-hypenate’s run of football references and self-reflection throughout a haze of avant-garde jazz-rap not dissimilar to the abstract approaches of Mavi, MIKE and other underground rappers. It’s bars for anxious minds and reassurance for the over thinkers, not that Navy has all the answers but his straight talking and explicit honesty on Navy’s Reprise is refreshing in a micro scene renowned for its coded messaging and ambiguous poetry.
One act featuring on the list twice? More likely than you’d think. At this point, there’s a tacit acceptance that The Alchemist will routinely churn out three to four excellent collaborative projects a year and call upon a sea of artists that feature and intermingle across the records.
With The Price of Tea in China becoming a critical darling in 2020, Al revived his partnership with Detroit’s Boldy James for another exercise in cut throat lyrical sparring.
Inherently, self-titled albums come with a degree of commitment to being biographical in nature. Vince Staples makes good on that promise as the Ramona Park rapper looks inwards over a project consisting entirely of Kenny Beats productions. It swaps the claustrophobia of Summertime 06 for looser instrumentals that give his words room to breath and with no song even hitting the three minute mark it’s an album that finds impact in its brevity.
Pink Siifu is impossible to pin down. Making it his mission to dodge short-sighted expectations of critics and fans alike, he’s shared music that ranges from the punk rage of NEGRO to the sprawling, smokey bars of his collaborative album FlySiifu in a zigzagging approach that could only be his.
The Alabama shapeshifter’s third album GUMBO’! is a collaborative affair that invites some of the underground’s most exciting talents to explore the contours of southern rap and pay homage to legacy of Atlanta’s Dungeon Family.
Kojaque‘s debut album Town’s Dead centres itself around an all too familiar story for a generation of people in Ireland who can’t afford to leave their parent’s gaff. Searching for somewhere to go on New Year’s eve, the sprawling 16 track release slaloms from the punk rage of ‘Schmelly’ to the deeply personal lyricism of ‘No Hands’ to the kaleidoscopic croons of ‘Coming Up’ and is winged by a myriad of self-directed videos cementing the Soft Boy Records co-founder as one of hip hop’s most exciting polymaths.
It felt as though Ghetts’ whole career had been building up to his major-label debut Conflict of Interest.
Having cut his teeth in the golden era of pirate radio and released countless mixtapes since, the veteran rapper garnered a reputation as one of the grime’s totemic figures. While countless others have lost themselves in bigger budget efforts the London rapper delivered his most compelling project to date without compromising the energy that made him, gifting day one fans with ‘IC3′ – his first official track with another OG in Skepta. Conversely, after so many years in the game it’d be easy to get comfortable but as highlighted in the zaney and meandering flow of ‘Mozambique’, he’s still keen to experiment.
Filled with left turns and a unique blend of rock and rap that avoids the trap that so much landfill experiments fell victim to in the 2000s, the project lives up to its creator’s namesake in creating a cinematic universe. Few songs this year top the riotous energy of ‘HEAVY METAL’.
Having burst on the scene with Nothing Great About Britain, an album that distilled the societal division, grit and at times hopelessness of Brexit Britain, slowthai looked inwards on his sophomore album TYRON.
Split in two halves, the incendiary lyricism and brash delivery of the opening seven tracks later makes way for a more seven more vulnerable cuts. As a whole, the album swaps the UK-indebted sound of his debut for bigger production and transatlantic features.
However, his sincerity isn’t lost in the grandeur of a major label release either. Whether it’s inviting vocal inflections from James Blake on ‘Feel Away’, an ode to his younger brother that passed away or ‘Terms’ with alt-pop poster boy Dominic Fike which acts to soothe his lingering insecurities, slowthai is intent in putting all his chips on the table so others don’t fold.
The third instalment of Tkay Maidza‘s Last Year Was Weird series feels like her biggest flex to date. Raised in Australia by way of Zimbabwe, Tkay’s latest project highlights her versatility as artist that can provide candy cane pop vocals as easily as she can land killer punchlines.
While on ‘Cashmere‘ and ‘Eden‘ Maidza highlights her penchant for heartfelt crooning, it’s on ‘Syrup’ and ‘Kim’ where she raps with the confidence and authority of a high court judge banishing competitors to a life behind bars.
Though only having a handful of features and releases under her belt coming into 2021, enigmatic rapper John Glacier rewarded patient listeners with a cohesive 25 minute trip into her bubbling and nocturnal universe on SHILOH: Lost For Words.
Featuring executive production from Vegyn, the 12 track project meanders through a myriad of flows and provides a dreamy introduction to one of the London underground’s most exciting talents.
One of the most enduring struggles as an artist is knowing how much creative control to relinquish to elevate your work. Giving up too much can dilute the concept that’s been rattling around your brain for months, whereas holding your ideas too tightly can leave even the most experienced multi-hypenate feeling stretched.
Walsall newcomer Wesley Joseph hit the sweet spot in ULTRAMARINE and as far as debut projects go, it’s up there with the best of 2021.
Producing much of the mixtape’s expansive soundscape, self-directing the videos and penning his own lyrics, it’s a project firmly within his own creative control. However, the decision to bring in Leon Vynehall to provide additional production throughout proved a master stoke from an artist whose ceiling is in the clouds.
Based on an obsession with the concept of movement, Jehnova and lod’s new mixtape Avenoir is a lo-fi rap masterclass.
Crafted entirely in lockdown, the crackling samples and sharp lyricism came together remotely in the height of lockdown. You’d be forgiven for expecting a completely remote collaboration for sounding clinical or devoid of soul, but the pair’s joint effort is littered with introspective moments and emotive instrumentation that provides food for thought in the face of increasing brain fog.
New York rapper maassai wanders without ever feeling lost on With The Shifts. The way the burgeoning MC interrupts the slow-sprawling jazz instrumentation with cutting commentary feels like that cool university lecturer that can jolt their students on even the most lethargic Monday.
While the project’s textures are an immediate standout in the project that provides a cerebral feel, the tales of growth from hardship keep the nine tracks grounded firmly in reality.
Distilling nuanced commentary on the flaming hot dumpster fire that is modern America into 15 minutes of original and thought provoking head nodders is no easy feat, but Lo Village make it seem like a walk in the park.
The DMV trio leave a lasting impression in what is the shortest project on our list, with the laid-back production accentuating the healthy dose of conscious lyricism throughout. Relative newcomers, Kane, Ama and Charles Tyler are throwing their names into all the right lists come the end of this year.
The release and reception of Little Simz’ Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was poetry in motion. An album named after her aversion being the centre of attention paradoxically became the most widely celebrated release of the week on the same day Drake dropped his Certified Lover Boy.
2019’s Grey Area is a hard record to follow, but her sophomore effort is even more ambitious in scope, with Simbi’s razor sharp lyricism scattered over an hour’s worth of tracks where any sound or style is fair game. Whether that’s the funk-lite of ‘Protect My Energy’, the triumphant opener ‘Introvert’ or the afrobeat-inspired ‘Point and Shoot’ with Obongjayar, who incidentally, is the only feature on the album that stands in complete contrast to the bloated feature lists of her recent competitors.