2021 was musically impressive with some of the game’s heavy-hitters dropping new verses. To close the year off, fans received new bars from Nas, A$AP Rocky, Earl Sweatshirt and more.

Every month, HipHopDX puts a spotlight on the tracks that stand out from the overabundance of releases throughout the year, highlighting everything from Billboard chart-friendly singles to essential album cuts.

The Top Rap of 2021 (January 1 – December 31)

“We Set The Trends” – Jim Jones f. Migos

“Tabula Rasa” – Earl Sweatshirt f. Armand Hammer

Earl Sweatshirt has returned from his recluse state first with the masterful wordplay of “2010,” and now with “Tabula Rasa” featuring underdog MVPs of 2021 Armand Hammer. Produced by 2021 HipHopDX Producer of the Year Alchemist, “Tabula Rasa” is an introspective journey into the minds of some of Hip Hop’s greatest thinkers. – David Brake

“Wave Gods” – Nas f. A$AP Rocky

“Plug Addicts” – RZA & Flatbush Zombies

Staten Island and Brooklyn collide for RZA and the Flatbush Zombies’ latest “Plug Addicts” track. The menacing and dark sounds of RZA, of Wu-Tang Clan and Gravediggaz fame, mesh perfectly with the gristle of the NYC rap trio, backed by a triumphant but haunting string sample. – David Brake

“Blessings” – Cousin Stizz

Massachusetts experienced a landmark year in 2021, with acts such as BIA, Van Buren Records and Cousin Stizz taking the scene to new heights. On “Blessings,” Stizz reflects on his upbringing, finding gratitude for the past experiences which crafted the man he is today. – David Brake

“Life of The Party” – Kanye West f. Andre 3000

Kanye West finally released the deluxe version of Donda on Sunday (November 14) much to the surprise of his ever-loyal fans. Although the tracklist was slightly rearranged, the updated version of the Billboard 200 chart-topping album contained the André 3000 collaboration, “Life Of The Party,” which Drake leaked in September in an attempt to outsmart his contemporary. The song features the Outkast legend opening up about the loss of his mother, which fit the theme of Donda, the name of Kanye’s late mother who died in 2008. Many are already calling it “verse of the year.”

“2010” – Earl Sweatshirt

Each Earl Sweatshirt track is a gift that keeps giving. With each listen, his music expands and contracts, sharing textures, lyrics and notes unheard on the first play. “2010,” the former Odd Future rapper’s most recent track, is another excellent addition to his canon, containing heady bars layered between clever references, all over a wonderfully discordant beat from Black Noi$e.

“Black Illuminati” – Freddie Gibbs f. Jadakiss

Gangsta rap is a tradition that despite rap’s continued metamorphosis — will never die. Freddie Gibbs’ success is proof. Gangsta Gibbs links up with legendary LOX member Jadakiss to spit some truths over a soulful beat. It’s a meeting of the minds that hasn’t occurred since 2012, and the reunion is long overdue.

“Never Fail” – Morray f. Benny The Butcher

Morray has proven he can sing his heart out, but his rap skills have been severely underestimated. “Never Fail” ends all doubt, as he blazes through the track possessed. His speed rapping combined with a melodic tinge pairs well with Benny The Butcher’s straight forward approach. It’s full proof that the DX Rising Star has every tool to become a superstar.

“Murder Music” – Snoop Dogg f. Benny The Butcher, Jadakiss & Busta Rhymes

“Outlawz” – Rick Ross f. 21 Savage & Jazmine Sullivan

Rick Ross is back in his Big Boss Bag with his latest single “Outlawz” featuring Atlanta spitter 21 Savage and R&B songstress Jazmine Sullivan. Two years have passed since Ross released Port of Miami 2, and though he’s appeared on several other artists’ tracks such as DJ Khaled’s “THIS IS MY YEAR,” DJ Snake’s “Run It” and the remix to “How Many” by Guapdad 4000, “Outlawz” represents the Florida rapper’s first solo track in a while, building anticipation for his upcoming album.

“Who Want Smoke (Remix)” – Nardo Wick f. 21 Savage, Lil Durk & G Herbo

“Miracle Baby” – Alchemist f. MAVI

Alchemist and North Carolina rapper MAVI sound like they were made for each other. Spitting through the swirling textures of Alchemist’s soulful production, MAVI raps with a sense of glory and pride, his bars splintering into topics including metaphysics, the state of the nation and the success he’s experienced over the past few years. Deeply impassioned, “Miracle Baby” is not only the best track from This Thing Of Ours 2, it’s one of MAVI’s best offerings of the year.

“Faces” – Young Thug

“Silly Achilles” – TisaKorean

mr.siLLyfLow, the most recent album from Houston MC TisaKorean is ripe with the absurd raps which first brought him attention in 2019 with “Dip (#thewoah),” but “Silly Achilles” stands apart from the pack. Taking influence from the sounds of Crunk, Bounce and Plugg music, Tisa’s music has the benchmarks of Texas rap, but it’s tweaked with his unflinching humor and captivating, exuberant voice.

“Long Night In Knightsbridge” – Headie One

“Barcade” – Atmosphere f. MF DOOM & Aesop Rock

“Barcade” is the underground rap hallmark of October. Combining the forces of Atmosphere, Aesop Rock and the late MF DOOM, “Barcade” provides a nostalgic feel without sounding stale. As a thick wind blows through Ant’s production, Aesop Rock, MF Doom and Slug drop esoteric bars tackling the realities of living in a dystopian world.

Yeah – Mac Miller

“Light Years” – Wale f. Rick Ross

Wale’s ability to stay relevant for over a decade is a rare talent in Hip Hop. While many rappers have burned hot and quick, Wale’s never taken his foot off the gas. From Folarin II, Wale’s most recent LP, “Light Years,” feels like a throwback to the era of Blog Rap with Wale reminding the listener that he’s been that guy for years, anyone who doesn’t see that fact must have been asleep.

“Range Brothers” – Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar

The alleged familial bonds between Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar produced the most electrifying five minutes in Rap this year. Capitalizing off the momentum from their lead single “family ties,” the duo ratchet up the energy and the absurdity with every word on “range brothers.” There’s a jarring switch from elite rapping backed by cinematic overtures to the unhinged last minute of the track. The finale’s captivating back and forth is stuffed with quotables and ad-libs that rattle in your head for weeks, leaving you muttering “rollie gang” like a madman.

“Intro (Hate On Me)” – Meek Mill

“Wyd” – Tony Seltzer f. Mavi

Brooklyn producer Tony Seltzer acts more like a luxury tailor than producer, precisely molding the production of his tracks to match the tone and energy of his collaborators. “Wyd” features a high-pitched droning that provides a perfect foil to MAVI’s laid-back, low-octave delivery. His rambles conversely feel measured and controlled, with every one of his melancholic words coming through clear as day.

“Off The Grid” – Kanye West f. Playboi Carti & Fivio Foreign

Kanye West‘s DONDA was met with mixed reception, but none can deny the intoxicating energy of “Off The Grid.” Including vintage Yeezus-esque production and some of Ye’s best bars of the album, “Off The Grid” also features arguably the greatest verse in Fivio Foreign’s career and punchy bars from Playboi Carti. Kanye, who also executive produced Carti’s WHOLE LOTTA RED, clearly holds a lot of respect for the Atlanta rapper, as “Off The Grid” sounds like Yeezy’s take on Carti’s frenetic post-SoundCloud sonics.

 

“family ties” – Baby Keem f. Kendrick Lamar

Baby Keem has had one helluva month. He claimed the best verse on Kanye West’s long-awaited Donda album and has a hit with cousin Kendrick Lamar on “family ties.” The song was released after Kendrick announced his forthcoming album will be his last with Top Dawg Entertainment. It’s too soon to say what the future has in store for the iconic Compton rapper, but if Kendrick’s new album sounds anything like the turbulent hellfire of his verse on “family ties,” fans should be excited.

Keem, too, is due for a new album. Given that he’s released a slew of singles (including the Travis Scott-assisted “durag activities”) already in 2021, hopes are high the album is on its way.

“Down South” – Wale f. Maxo Kream & Yella Beezy

Though the beat, which sounds like a chopped and screwed violin concerto, could support a club banger, Wale and company opt into a meaty, time-traveling philosophical roundtable on “Down South.” Wale stands rightly as the grizzled lead man, asking tough questions about the perilous intersectionality between stardom and drug dealing. Wale is grizzled after of a life spent navigating troubled waters, but Yella Beezy sounds much less scarred as he delivers a bullheaded verse that drips with a Southern drawl and vivid bravado.

Maxo Kream brings the track full circle with a verse that shows both glee and inescapable trauma. He totes guns and threatens the masses but also candidly recalls the death of his brother. In those final moments, Wale’s cynicism is validated with the line, “Can’t even trust my Crips because a Crip killed Nipsey Hussle.” A Southern rapper’s dilemma in three disparate time frames, “Down South” has multi-generational effect. The track illustrates the meatgrinder of the Southern rap scene and the toll it takes on those unfortunately embroiled.

“Nobody” – Nas f. Lauryn Hill

Social media entered a frenzy when people noticed Lauryn Hill was featured on the tracklist to Nas’ King’s Disease II. Ms. Hill’s return to rhyming was met with excitement and a healthy dose of uncertainty as nearly 25 years have passed since the two bards of Hip Hop first joined forces on It Was Written‘s lead single “If I Ruled The World.” Luckily, both legendary MCs have plenty of fuel left in the tank. Nas’ head-nodding flow on “Nobody” exhibits the same dexterous flow he forged in his youth, but it’s Ms. Hill’s explosive verse that truly steals the show.

“Back To Life” – Zion I f. Deuce Eclipse

Bay Area Hip Hop duo Zion I — comprised of MC Baba Zumbi and producer Amp Live — transcended modern day rap. With their ethos firmly in line with the culture’s roots, Zumbi and Amp pumped out celebrated underground classics such as “Silly Puddy” with The Grouch and “Antenna.” Sadly, Zumbi’s life came to a sudden and tragic end on August 13 when he passed away under suspicious circumstances at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California. Right before he made his transition, he and frequent collaborator Deuce Eclipse released a video for “Back To Life,” a bass-heavy banger sun-kissed by Zumbi’s rhyming prowess and unbridled positivity. With lines such as, “We are lights upon a journey, so don’t ever think you’re lost/Learning is the key, knowledge of self is the boss,” Zumbi inherently knew this wasn’t the end. While he may not be here in physical form, his spirit lives on in his music and those who loved him. RIP Baba Zumbi.

“Corvette Corvette” – RX Papi

Rx Papi isn’t afraid to speak his mind. On “Corvette, Corvette,” Pap hurls streams of threats like gusts of wind. Each punchline hits hard, and Dog the Bounty Hunter, DJ Akademiks and Lil Uzi Vert are all in Pap’s line of fire. “Corvette, Corvette,” like most Rx Papi songs, is filled with a sinister energy that fills his lyrics. In one instance, he’s robbing two people on his first day out of jail, then he states with a callous deadpan delivery that he treats every day as his first day. Rx Papi’s nihilism fuels the track’s chaos but at the same time, he couldn’t care less.

“Lil Fade” – Vince Staples

Like the entire self-titled Vince Staples album, “Lil Fade” gets better every time it’s played. The warm, loopy Kenny Beats-produced instrumental coaxes a scrap of optimism from Staples, allowing him to develop a shimmering portrait of his life as he sees it.

The careful cinematography from Staples’ best work is present here, but it’s blurry at first and the scenes don’t seem to connect to one another. The lyrics travel in time, flickering between his current ivory tower and the struggle that raised him. Initially abstract, further listening allows “Lil Fade” to coalesce into a somber and elegant scene.

“Audible” – Remble f. B.A.

 

“Clash” – Dave f. Stormzy

“Clash,” on top of being a highly anticipated collaboration between two of the U.K.’s most heralded artists, is a celebration. The track highlights two beacons of the British rap scene, with Dave ascending to the top and Stormzy’s place already solidified, trading outstanding verses for over four minutes. Each line delivered is an attempt to outclass the last with both rappers rattling off luxurious purchases in consecutive bars with disarming nonchalance.

The spoils earned from their artistic prowess is listed with a blasé indifference, Rolex watches and crocodile skin purses like are checked off like items on a grocery list. As Dave wades further into the pinnacle of his career thus far, all eyes are watching his next move, yearning for more collaborations of this caliber.

“What U Sed” – Isaiah Rashad f. Iamdoechii & Kal Banx

Isaiah Rashad pays homage to his Dirty South lineage with his latest album, The House Is Burning. The production is filled with nods to the codeine-induced grooves of UGK’s Pimp C and Outkast — cowbells, heavy bass and cipher-ready soundtracks.

“Wat U Sed” finds Zay in a schism between his two vices: money and women. He recalls a dream where he wasn’t counting dead presidents. He puts the women aside in the search for peace of mind. The track features appearances from the intoxicating Iamdoechii and TDE’s in-house producer Kal Banx. Iamdoechii’s vocals are airy as cotton candy as she provides a show-stealing performance. “What U Sed” makes it clear Zay knows how to have the perfect vibe for those nighttime car rides.

“INDUSTRY BABY” – Lil Nas X f. Jack Harlow

Lil Nas and Jack Harlow take pride in coming up as unlikely stars from their respective openly homosexual and Southern white middle class farm-raised personal backgrounds. They celebrate their come-up together on “INDUSTRY BABY,” gloating about their success in a fickle rap industry.

They’re still riding the wave beyond 15 minutes of fame after Lil Nas X’s Billboard country rap record breaker “Old Town Road” in 2019 and Harlow’s 2020 Tik Tok-driven mega single “WHAT’S POPPIN.” Both artists give their 16 bars on being a product of an industry which eventually opened up for them as Xennials were drawn to be their unhindered self-expression and authenticity.

“WHOLE LOTTA MONEY [Remix]” – BIA f. Nicki Minaj

“WUSYANAME” – Tyler, The Creator f. YoungBoy Never Broke Again & Ty Dolla Sign

Tyler, the Creator is a master at creating cohesive sonic landscapes on his albums. While his most recent album Call Me If You Get Lost, is no exception,WUSYANAME” stands out with its lush instrumentation and teed up features from YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Ty Dolla $ign. Tyler always brings out the best in his guests and this is yet another example. From T’s humorous pick up lines to DJ Drama’s drops, the song should serve as a soundtrack to the summer of 2021.

“42” – Pi’erre Bourne

Pi’erre Bourne’s skills as a rapper are still being honed, but on “42,” from The Life Of Pi’erre 5, the rapper/producer’s latest album, the artist showcases the maturity and growth he’s undergone over the course of the five-project series. Bourne rides the beat’s pocket as he croons over electric production, full of computerized chimes and swelling synths. Bourne’s been responsible for a number of catchy hooks over his career, but none can hold a flame to the exhilarating chorus of “42.”

“Seeing Green” – Nicki Minaj f. Drake & Lil Wayne

“my life” – J. Cole f. 21 Savage & Morray

Whenever J. Cole releases new music, the world pauses to listen. This held true for The Off-Season, Cole’s latest studio album, which caused Spotify to crash from an overload of traffic. Cole projects tend to be particularly divisive, but none can deny the epic “m y . l i f e”

With production from WU10, Cole and Jake One, “m y . l i f e” is not only the most complete song on The Off-Season, it holds the two best features of the project, including a verse from 21 Savage, whom Cole collaborated with on “A Lot.” Also included is a breathtaking hook from Morray, North Carolina’s hottest rookie.

“Miss The Rage” – Trippie Redd f. Playboi Carti

One thing every Hip Hop fan has come to realize about Ohio’s Trippie Redd is the former SoundCloud rapper is one of the best in the business when it comes to picking beats. Look no further than “Miss The Rage,” Redd’s latest single with King Vamp himself, Playboi Carti. Produced by Loesoe, one of the sonic architects responsible for singles such as Lil Uzi Vert’s “Futsal Shuffle 2020″ and “Miss The Rage” has been highly anticipated since Redd shared a snippet on Instagram in December 2020. 

In the following months, “Miss The Rage” wormed its way into TikTok virality and spread like wildfire across the internet. Now, with the complete track available, one can see how the hype was warranted. In addition to being the best Hip Hop song in the month of May, “Miss The Rage” is one of Redd’s greatest musical contributions to date.

“The Biggest” – Latto

As her first release under the moniker Latto, “The Biggest” finds the 22 year old rap veteran doing some serious explaining. Why she changed her name, why the change took so long, how she plans to go forward, and most prominently why you should still kiss her ass.

Heavy bass, crystalline synth, and the trademark violin provide solid ground for her to unleash a full account of her growth, as well as a condemnation of cancel-happy internet dwellers. Her talent is undeniable, as is her love for her city, but “if it ain’t drama, then it’s overlooked.” She can’t stop the haters, but she can get too big to see them.

“2Face” – Young Nudy f. G Herbo

If news broke that Young Nudy was the actual grim reaper, rap fans would be surprised, but not that surprised. His voice is thin, yet ghastly, ideal for delivering his subversively terrifying bars. The horror he exudes is magnetic, prompting the listener to drop everything and submit an evil henchman application.

“2Face” is perhaps as complete an encapsulation of Nudy’s brand as exists. Still, you come away with only the blurriest view of the man, clearly a master of inspiring devotion while giving nothing away. G Herbo, known for disrupting tracks, falls in line here, as if he too fears the monster Young Nudy.

“No More Parties (Remix)” – Coi Leray & Lil Durk

Coi Leray and Lil Durk are two of the most sought-after artists in rap, so it’s only natural that they would come together for a remix of “No More Parties.” Produced by Okaykhan and the explosive Maaly Raw, “No More Parties” has already netted over 15 million streams on Spotify alone after repeatedly going viral on social media.

The daughter of rap veteran Benzino, Coi Leray has found herself frequently in the news, often for her dramatic interactions with her father. But Leray already has two certified hits in “BIG PURR” and “No More Parties,” and her discography has never looked stronger. Meanwhile, Lil Durk has been one of Hip Hop’s most consistent artists, simultaneously unleashing street-focused anthems and radio-ready hits like “No More Parties.”

“4U” – Pi’erre Bourne

“Big Boss Rabbit” – Freddie Gibbs

“Wants and Needs” – Drake f. Lil Baby

Drake’s Scary Hours 2 was met with enormous success, even for Drizzy’s high standards. The 6 God proved he doesn’t need more than three tracks to succeed. Drake became the first artist to debut in all three of the top slots on Billboard’s Hot 100 with the release. While all three tracks were bulletproof, “Wants and Needs” featuring Lil Baby stands out. Lil Baby has come a long way since “Yes Indeed,” his first collaboration with Drake. On “Wants and Needs,” the two superstar rappers are in fierce competition, pushing each other into their highest potential.

“Hellcats & Trackhawks” – Lil Durk

Only The Family’s compilation album Loyal Bros might have been disappointing overall, but “Hellcats & Trackhawks” makes the project’s mediocrity completely forgivable. “Hellcats & Trackhawks” serves as a potent reminder of Durkio’s roots in unflinching Drill music, as the Chicago rapper wastes no time in laying an onslaught of bars over thumping production from Nick Slowburnz. Durk has made it on nearly every roundup we’ve done, and it doesn’t seem like he’s letting up anytime soon.

“4 Da Gang” – 42 Dugg & Roddy Ricch

With shots fired at the filming of “4 Da Gang”‘s music video, chaos shrouded the release of the hotly anticipated single from Roddy Ricch and HipHopDX Rising Star 42 Dugg. But the two rappers didn’t let the scandal overtake the song, which finally dropped at the start of April. The two young titans are electric on “4 Da Gang,” blessing listeners with just over two minutes of unrelenting energy over one of the best beats of the year from TayTayMadeIt.

“Lemon Pepper Freestyle” – Drake f. Rick Ross

This is Drake’s peak moment on his three-track potential album teaser Scary Hours EP. The “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” is an appropriate metaphor in the track title for 6ix God’s stans to chew up what’s arguably the most tasteful hot wings flavor on any menu. Drake enlists Rozay to ante up their Midas touch for the collaborative, hookless track as they steer through a barrage of bars about the glamorous celebrity life over an airy, obscurely filtered R&B vocal-sampled instrumental with subtle boom-bap drums to make rap traditionalist and the vibes crowds bop.

“Case Closed” – Young Dolph & Key Glock

Cousins Young Dolph and Key Glock have undeniable chemistry. The two rap like they’re chilling at the cookout, catching family members up on their lives.  But just because there’s camaraderie doesn’t mean there isn’t room for competition. On the standout track from their new Dum & Dummer 2 mixtape, the two enter into a friendly contest over who can be the hardest flexer. Glock boasts about his good credit, sexual prowess and deciding not to buy a Ghost in favor of a Richard Mille… though he makes it clear he could have had a Ghost. Dolph jumps in flaunting his VVS stones in his glasses, making millions off ad-libs and turning fine women into freaks, sound effects included. By the time Dolph and Glock reveal their intentions to drop a country album, it becomes impossible to pick a winner.    

Contributing writers: David Brake, Trent Clark, Kyle Eustice, Jeremy Hecht, Devon Jefferson, Dana Scott, Ben Brutocao, Anthony Malone, Kia Turner, Matthew Ritchie & Josh Svetz.

Editor’s note: Songs from this list were released between December 2, 2020 – December 31, 2021.

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM JANUARY 2021

  • “Bad Boy” — Juice WRLD f. Young Thug
  • “Onna Come Up” — Lil Eazzyy
  • “Ox” – Gabe ‘Nandez

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FEBRUARY 2021

  • “Greed” – LUCKI f. Lil Yachty
  • “I Gotcha” – YFN Lucci
  • “Rainforest” – NoName

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM MARCH 2021

  • “What’s Next” – Drake
  • “Headshot” – Lil Tjay f. Polo G & Fivio Foreign
  • “Indian Summer” – Armand Hammer & The Alchemist

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM APRIL 2021

  • “Better You” – Evidence
  • “Plastic” – Lil Yachty f. Icewear Vezzo  & Rio Da Yung OG
  • “RAPSTAR” – Polo G

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM MAY 2021

  • “Straightenin” – Migos
  • “Gold Rolex” – Bobby Sessions f. Freddie Gibbs & Benny The Butcher
  • “Groceries” – Pi’erre Bourne

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM JUNE 2021

  • “Law Of Averages” – Vince Staples
  • “Young Thug” – Bbyafricka
  • “Dummy” – TyFontaine

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM JULY 2021

  • “edamame” – bbno$ f. Rich Brian
  • “Steve Jobs: SLR 3 ½” – Lupe Fiasco
  • “Rock N Roll” – Ken Car$on

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM AUGUST 2021

  • “Walk The Beat” – Tierra Whack
  • “In My Blood” – Mo3 f. Morray
  • “Matt Hardy 999” – Trippie Redd f. Juice WRLD

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM SEPTEMBER 2021

  • “Rocc Climbing” – Remble f. Lil Yachty
  • “Bread Head” – SahBabii

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM OCTOBER 2021

  • “Silly Rabbit” – TisaKorean
  • “SANTANNY” – BKtherula

OTHER FAVORITE RAP SONGS FROM FROM NOVEMBER 2021

  • “Channel 5” – Key Glock
  • “RISK SUM” – Tony Shhnow & 10kDunkin