2021 was a rollercoaster of a year, but one consistency was the amount of good rap music released. From Tyler, the Creator’s DJ Drama-fuelled album to Kanye West’s extravagant DONDA, there were a lot of bars for fans to digest. As things opened up in the world, Hip Hop heads were able to experience the music as a soundtrack to their daily lives as they re-entered the world. Along with the return of concerts came the re-emergence of rappers like Isaiah Rashad and Vince Staples, who both returned with new projects after a few years out of the musical spotlight.
UK rapper Dave made his mark with a stellar project, Nas continued to prove that age is just a number when it comes to rhyming ability, and J. Cole seemed hungrier than even on The Offseason.
Here are some of the best rap albums of 2021.
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST – TYLER, THE CREATOR
Tyler, The Creator has finally achieved his goal of creating a Gangsta Grillz-inspired album. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, the seventh album released by the subversive artist, has now arrived and is on pace to land in Billboard’s top slot. Hosted by DJ Drama, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is louder and more up-front than IGOR but still tackles inherently personal themes, from cancel culture to Tyler’s thoughts on addressing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Produced in entirety by Tyler (with the exception of an assist from Pharrell Williams on “JUGGERNAUT”), CMIYGL is a return sonically to the artist’s earliest work but now, with a maturity and cohesiveness developed over years of experience. Features are used brilliantly throughout, from 42 Dugg’s fast-paced bars on “LEMONHEAD” to YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s stunning auto-tuned gospel delivery on “WUSYANAME.” Even with exceptional features, Tyler is the star of the show, switching between impassioned crooning and masterful bars without hesitation. CMIYGL is not only in the running for the best album of Tyler’s career but also the best album of the year. – David Brake
Read HipHopDX’s full CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST album review here.
Check out Tyler’s reaction to winning rapper of the year and album of the year:
THE HOUSE IS BURNING – ISAIAH RASHAD
The House Is Burning is unlike any Isaiah Rashad project that precedes it, simply because he is a different person shaped by a brand new set of experiences. The trials he underwent following The Sun’s Tirade, dealing with depression and addiction working in concert with the expectations of achieving superstardom, are enough to break any person down to a shell of themselves.
By his own account, this album is a departure from the downtrodden tones of the previous projects, with the same outwardly heartbreaking sounds noticeably missing. Even so, they retain the same Zay flavor, as he displays a thorough grasp of song construction and writing, producing endearing tracks just the same. “Claymore” is a supremely fun standout, with a smooth and syrupy production accompanied by a zany appearance by St. Louis native Smino. Tracks like the single “Headshots (4r Da Locals)” and “Chad” show off his aptitude for hook-making, crafting earworms that sneak into the listener’s minds and stay there for hours. The album is the epitome of easy listening, with Zay becoming a master of mood management.. Despite the upbeat nature of the album, he still sneaks in moments of mortality that remind us many wounds never fully heal. – Matthew Ritchie
Read HipHopDX’s full The House Is Burning album review here.
VINCE STAPLES – VINCE STAPLES
Vince Staples’ self-titled album isn’t like much of his past work. It isn’t as exuberant and lively as 2018’s FM!. It’s not synth-driven Los Angeles rap like his debut Hell Can Wait. It’s perhaps most similar to the winding storytelling of Summertime ’06, but with more restraint and a healthy dose of R&B influences. Because of its differences to his artist-defining previous projects, Vince Staples was initially met with apprehension and mild pushback. But as listeners continued to explore the ever-expanding world of the Long Beach rapper’s sixth studio album, they found new sounds and hidden themes running throughout.
Produced in entirety with frequent collaborator Kenny Beats, Vince Staples feels organic, growing with each listen, and morphing to the state of mind of the individual listener. It’s also remarkably sonically diverse while still maintaining a solid foundation. His bars tumble from his mouth on the melodic “TAKE ME HOME” featuring Fousheé, meanwhile catching a screw-faced groove on the album’s closer “MHM.” There aren’t many rappers operating with the consistency as Vince Staples and his latest album is no exception. – David Brake
Read HipHopDX’s full Vince Staples album review here.
WE’RE ALL ALONE IN THIS TOGETHER – DAVE
Wise beyond his years and filled with unquenchable fury over the sorry state of the world, Dave follows his successful debut “Psychodrama” with a tighter, more cogent project that solidifies the Brixton rapper’s name as one to remember. He’s a first rate wordsmith who is challenging himself, perhaps a bit too hard, to build a masterpiece. We’re All Alone is duly ambitious and important, but the powerful lyrical display greases all parts of this hulking machine.
Dave has a supreme confidence in his artistic abilities, which might have come off pompous or gauche if he wasn’t so undeniably talented. There isn’t the risk of a bad verse, which allows him the freedom to experiment with song structure. When most rappers release a 10 minute, largely a cappella track, the savvy listener will reach for the skip button around minute one. But, when Dave does it with “Heart Attack,” the same listener will play it twice. – Ben Brutocao
Read HipHopDX’s full We’re All Alone In This Together album review here.
WEIGHT OF THE WORLD – MAXO KREAM
Kream has been grinding for years, beloved by those in the know, yet still not quite achieving the props he’s deserved for quite some time. Weight Of The World, his best body of work to date, is a wake up call for anyone still sleeping on the Houston rapper. Weight Of The World isn’t a reinvention, rather a top-to-bottom, RoboCop-esque improvement on the established formula. Maxo deals with family matters, fame, drug addiction and his rocky past as he did on Brandon Banks and Punken. But all the fat has been trimmed, the successes have been amplified and Maxo has never so effectively balanced his roles as narrator and protagonist. His masterpiece is now complete. – Ben Brutocao
DONDA – KANYE WEST
From the first time Kanye stepped into a stadium to preview his new album, there was high anticipation to see what Ye had been cooking up. And while DONDA may not follow a clear lyrical theme or conceptual pattern, the standout songs are some of Kanye’s best work in years. There are shining moments of collaboration, high caliber production and standout verses. While Ye continues to change things about the album, it may never be the perfect project, but it will surely stand the test of time as Good Music. – Jeremy Hecht
THE OFFSEASON – J. COLE
The nexus of love and basketball is the premise for J. Cole’s sixth consecutive No. 1 album The Off-Season. For the first time since his Born Sinner album in 2013, The Off-Season is bound to go platinum with features including 21 Savage, Cam’Ron, Lil Baby, 6lack, Cole’s fellow Fayetteville native Morray, Bas and Diddy assisting the Dreamville co-founder across 12 tracks. Cole reflects on his childhood innocence through the present in his own fatherhood, friendships and family relationships lost, and asserting his reign at the top of the rap game. – Dana Scott
PRAY FOR HAITI – MACH-HOMMY
Mach-Hommy exists as an underground legend that you either appreciate or don’t (with only a little bit of a grey area). But even fence-sitters can find something to love on Pray For Haiti, the main reason being its consistency. His multi-lingual flows are backed by a stellar line-up of producers, like Camoflauge Monk, Sadhugold, Conductor Williams, and even mixtape legend DJ Green Lantern (amongst others) throughout the project. The decidedly Griselda vibe envelops his razor-sharp pen. Even so, Mach-Hommy stays true to himself, armed with hard-as-nails themes with calmly delivered, tastefully complex wordplay. Pray For Haiti is an easy starting point for new Griselda fans looking to find out what the Mach-Hommy hype is all about. – Riley Wallace
SOMETIMES I MIGHT BE INTROVERT – LITTLE SIMZ
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, the follow-up to Little Simz breakout 2019 release Grey Area, is a reminder of Little Simz the person and her complex relationship with the budding stardom stemming from her artistry. The album serves as an introspective full examination of her life, with Simz and her collaborators embarking on a 19-track odyssey that scans her personal history for every source of conflict and strife. Her absentee father, toxic relationships and internal struggle about the worth of critical fanfare are all on the table. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is Simz at her most vulnerable, showing a new side of herself and opening up about her life in a way that makes her more relatable than she already was. The album shows sometimes a sense of mystery is just a veil for introvertism, but it’s clear Simz has found her voice and is finally ready to use it. – Matthew Ritchie
KING’S DISEASE 2 – NAS
Through 28 summers, the Hip Hop community still stands at attention whenever Nas delivers a new album. But there’s a contingent of his fans who share some longtime skepticism about the New York rap magnate’s questionable ear for production. On King’s Disease II, the sequel to 2020’s Grammy Award-winning predecessor, Nas assures his core audience of gangsta and underground conscious rap purists that his erstwhile Esco and Nasty Nas personas remain intact. The formula from the first installment of the KD series remains the same, embracing the business empire he’s built, while also making himself relatable, using allegories of joy, facing danger, romance (“No Phony Love” featuring The Gap Band’s leading crooner Charlie Wilson) and late 1980s rap nostalgia (“EPMD 2” featuring EPMD’s Erick Sermon and Parish Smith with Eminem) sprinkled throughout his lyrics. Hit-Boy’s production and Nas’ cavalcade of guests young and old helps keep the material fresh, resulting in a victory lap album that appeals to all heads regardless of age. It’s one of the best new hip hop albums of 2021. – Dana Scott
THE PLUGS I MET 2 – BENNY THE BUTCHER & HARRY FRAUD
Benny The Butcher’s collaborative LP with Grammy Award-winning producer Hit-Boy, Burden of Proof, was a leap in another direction — resulting in his most ambitious project to date. Continuing this one-producer strategy, he ventures from West Coast prominence back to his East Coast origins to connect with famed hitmaker Harry Fraud for the follow-up to his critically acclaimed The Plugs I Met. The Plugs I Met 2 adds a well-rounded arc to his discography but also solidifies his status as an elder statesman/role model for a new generation who could genuinely use the perspective. – Riley Wallace
HITLER WEARS HERMES 8: SIDE B – WESTSIDE GUNN
When the dust settles and the smoke clears, Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes 8 is the end of an era. The Griselda Kingpin has spent the last decade bringing high art and fashion to the streets of Buffalo. On the artwork for Side B, he dons a ski mask designed by Celine, making the statement that Hitler Wears Hermes is more than a mixtape series, it’s the elevation of Hip Hop culture. Griselda mates Benny The Butcher, Armani Cesar, Conway The Machine and Mach-Hommy all make appearances. Like Lil Wayne on Side A, Tyler, The Creator spits a verse on, “The Fly Who Couldn’t Fly Straight” that’s cold enough to freeze time. If there’s one takeaway from Hitler Wears Hermes 8, it’s that Westside Gunn and his friends can curate one hell of a project. – Anthony Malone
EXODUS – DMX
JAY-Z may have provided The Blueprint to contemporary East Coast rap, but DMX was the mythical figure whom everyone aspired to be. With vicious bites and even more legendary barks, Dark Man X was a champion of the people, from the streets of Yonkers to the Five Boroughs and beyond. After a career which spanned three decades, Hip Hop lost DMX from complications which stemmed from an accidental overdose. DMX’s final gift to the world arrived in the form of Exodus, a posthumous album with an array of features only DMX could have attained. From the aggressive “Hood Blues,” featuring Westside Gunn, Benny The Butcher and Conway The Machine, to the introspective and mournful “Hold Me Down” featuring Alicia Keys, the Ruff Ryders rapper leaves nothing unspoken. – David Brake
BO JACKSON – ALCHEMIST & BOLDY JAMES
Boldy James and The Alchemist have ascended up the ranks of best rapper-producer combination in rap history with their second full-length collaboration. If their previous album, The Price Of Tea In China, was an announcement of Boldy’s prowess and the duo’s untapped potential for greatness, Bo Jackson is their coronation. It’s an entrenchment of the very formula that endeared them to rap fans on the first installment. The Alchemist’s soul-stirring, nostalgia-fueled sample loops exist as a perfect background for Boldy’s deadpan delivery, one that forces the lyrics to become the star of each song, avoiding gimmicky inflections and ad-libs completely. Boldy is a rapper’s rapper, bouncing in and out of tightly woven pockets in Alchemist’s production with expert precision. Each word is enunciated fully, where his stories of street life and redemption refuse to get lost in the flow of the album. –Matthew Ritchie
Be sure to check out some of our other Year End Award Categories and our previous year’s winners below: