2021 Hip Hop Year in Review
I’ll be brief at the top. This was a hard year. Like most of us, I am operating at about 65 percent operating capacity and struggling through much of life. So much so, I had an especially difficult time getting motivated to write this review. Every time I sat down to write, my inspiration would falter and I would stare at the blank page. Finally, I just decided to sit down and listen to my favorite songs for the year and write whatever came to my mind. And low and behold, the fire was lit and I was off and running. For 4 hours, I sat in my dining room and wrote with my wife, kids, and in-laws bouncing off the walls around me. And I realized two things. One, no matter how dark the hole, music is the elixir for what ails me. The pandemic almost made me forget that. I won’t let it happen again. Second, even in what I would consider a “slow” year in hip hop, there was plenty to enjoy. Plenty to critique. Plenty to debate. So without further ado, the list of my top 5 hip hop albums of 2021.
#5 The Off-Season [Released 14 May]
Off-Season continues Cole’s solid run of releases. He has set the bar pretty high for himself, so it is always impressive to me that he can reach the same heights on every release. His music is about real things. Real life situations. Astute social commentary. It’s genuine and it’s heartfelt. The music is soulful and mature. Lyrical acrobats from a verified vet. The first song (95.south) is a bit of a head fake. I was ready to hear Cole do a boom-bap rap album with a mix-tape feel. But, after the first track the album goes all over the place a bit. Towards the end of the album, the vibe gets a bit sleepy and the songs run together, but it remains crisp. It’s background music, but in a good way (if that makes sense).
Notable tracks: 95.south; my.life; pride.is.the.devil
#4 CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST [Released 25 June]
Tyler, The Creator
I have always liked Tyler but most of his albums were just a bit too random for my taste. He can rap, but sometimes seems much more interested in doing other things (see: Mos Def). He is also a great producer, which makes for a consistent sounding album, but can be an issue without any guard rails. This album is really good, but honestly it’s difficult to describe. Having DJ Drama as the copilot/narrator was a nice balance to the album. It has a mixtape vibe with hi-fidelity production. The album has a bit of everything: clever word play, intoxicating melodies, and entertaining skits. In classic Tyler fashion, there are all sorts of genuine emotion in the song content (humor, love, frustration, etc.). Simply put it’s a great overall album. Tyler hit this one out of the park.
Notable tracks: LEMONHEAD, HOT WIND BLOWS, RUNITUP
#3 Certified Lover Boy (Rap EP) [Released 3 September]
Before you throw your hands up in frustration: CLB has 21 tracks, but Drake is only really rapping on 10 of them. After trying twice to listen to the entire album, I put those 10 tracks into a playlist and have only listened to that since. The CLB Rap EP is Chip-On-My-Shoulder Drake who is annoyed that y’all don’t think he can actually rappity-rap. When Drake tried to put bars together, he can still bring the heat. With wordplay, metaphors, flow, you name it. I added the 2 rap tracks from the Scary Hours 2 EP and that is one of the best “albums” of the year, without question. You might say that I’m cheating with this ‘work around’, but I don’t care.
Notable tracks: Champagne Poetry, 7am On Bridle Path, You Only Live Twice, The Remorse
#2 King’s Disease II [Released 6 August]
I was not a huge fan of the original King's Disease album. I got a bit of grief from many of my friends, but I stand by my assessment: it’s a slow and inconsistent album. I know it’s Nas. But even with the legends the music has to stand on its own. KD2 is a different story. It’s a similar recipe as the first (Nas + Hit-Boy) but the dish came out tasting much better. Far as I can tell, the primary difference is that Nas seems to have picked better beats this time around. The songs just sound better. There are three of four memorable songs that made me reach for the rewind button (i.e., EPMD 2, Rare, Nobody). Hearing Lauryn Hill rap was *chef’s kiss* perfection. The album is more upbeat than the first. Nas’ energy level is higher than the original. As a result, we get a solid, smooth (but not boring) elder rap statesmen album.
Notable Tracks: Death Row East, EPMD 2, Rare, Nobody
#1 Chomp 2 [Released 8 December]
Perhaps a surprise pick for people that know me. Chomp 2 was released in December, but quickly climbed into my top spot. First off, the production on this album is bananas. Some of the best producers of all time, each all the way in their bag: 9th Wonder, Premier, Hit-Boy, Alchemist, Bink, Hi-Tek, Mr Porter, Harry Fraud. The instrumental version of this album could get a Grammy nomination. Second, there are a lot of features. Usually this is a red flag for me, but it works on Chomp 2 in large part because Russ is lyrically up to the task. Content and flow. He has features from artists that are known to body someone on their own sh*t: Jay Electronica, K.R.I.T., Jada, Ghostface. It’s a crazy list and Russ holds his own with all of them. It’s a virtuoso performance. 14 songs. No skips. Congrats to Russ on creating a classic.
Notable tracks: All of them.
The Plugs I Met 2, Benny The Butcher
Doe or Die II, AZ
Richer Than I Ever Been, Rick Ross
The House is Burning, Isaiah Rashad
That’s a wrap. Thanks to all my friends and family who asked me about the list. Y’all were the battery in my back to sit down and try to get this done.
Another brutal year of losses for the hip hop community. Rest in Peace to DMX, Biz Markie, Black Rob, Shock G, The Kangol Kid, Prince Markie D, & Michael K Williams.