2021 is off to a good start lyrically with some of the game’s heavy hitters dropping new bars. In May, fans received new verses from JAY-Z, Nas, Cordae, Redman and more.

HipHopDX is putting 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. Check back at the beginning of every month for updates and check out our other lists below and follow our playlist, which includes all of the songs mentioned in this article:

Editor’s note: Songs from this list were released between December 2, 2020 – June 1, 2021.

The Playlist

For your listening pleasure, here is HipHopDX’s Best Rap Songs of 2021 … so far.

The Top Rap Songs of 2021 (December – June)

Contributing writers: Trent Clark, Kyle Eustice, Josh Svetz, Dana Scott, David Brake, Devon Jefferson & Jeremy Hecht.

“Bath Salts” – DMX f. JAY-Z & Nas

The Hip Hop community still feels sullen following the death of legendary rapper DMX on April 9. Even attempting to surmise the accolades of the Yonkers rapper feels futile. Over DMX’s 30-plus year career, the Ruff Ryders legend did it all: from becoming the first artist to consecutively debut five albums at the top slot on the Billboard 200 to being an outspoken activist for mental health.

Exodus, the first posthumous DMX album, arrived in the final days of May with an epic range of features. But “Bath Salts” quickly stood out as the defining track. Featuring JAY-Z and Nas on the same track, a feat which a decade ago would have felt impossible, “Bath Salts” is one of the most important tracks of all of 2021. In this gathering of New York rap royalty, three kings of the East Coast come together for the final time. Rest in peace to the guardian of Yonkers, Dark Man X.

“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.

“Gold Rolex” – Bobby Sessions f. Freddie Gibbs & Benny The Butcher

If looking for a musical pairing for the most luxurious activity in your life, congratulations. On “Gold Rolex,” Bobby Sessions enlists feudal warlords Benny, the Butcher and Freddie Gibbs to shame anyone who considers poverty a virtue. The glittering synth sounds like wealth, and the long pause in between verses gives a believable air of importance.

All three rap with intent. Bobby Sessions chose two of the most prolific rappers of out time to compete with, and by the fact he doesn’t get washed assures fan interest for years to come. There is grandiosity and blood radiating from every corner. It’s rap that instills the same feeling as seeing the despair in the DA’s eyes after the fall guy stays solid.

“Freestyle” – Patrick Paige II

Nearly every song is excellent from If We Fail Are We Still Cool?, the latest album from Patrick Paige II, making it difficult to land on just one to praise. Nevertheless, “Freestyle” stood out as one of the album’s best offerings. The floating, looped sample paired with a knocking kick drum from producer Ashton McCreight serves as the foundation for Paige II and his sparring partner Saba to unleash a fury of bars. 

Paige II, best known for his work in Hip Hop and R&B collective The Internet, has stepped into a new, solo career in 2021. The versatile artist is just as comfortable delivering rap-heavy bars as he is crooning sweeping R&B tunes. On “Freestyle,” Paige II flexes his pen for two minutes of pure heat.

“RAPSTAR” – Polo G

“More Life” – Cordae f. Q-Tip

Ghostface Killah recently admonished Hip Hop’s new generation of rap stars to take pride in knowing the genre’s rich history so that they can foster career longevity. Cordae exemplifies the Wu-Tang Clan rhyme god’s advice on “More Life,” bridging the generational gap with A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip.

Co-produced Q-Tip, Kid Culture and Eric Hudson, the track is featured on Cordae’s latest EP Just Until… “More Life” sounds like a sunny-afternoon relaxed with spatial yet hard snare kicks and a whiny keyboard groove as Tip sings the hook. Cordae reviews his life’s purpose asking whether to chase fame or happiness and show off his pro tennis world champion girlfriend Naomi Osaka (“My girl a tennis star, you n-ggas out here marrying hoes”).

“Rih” – Kenny Mason

“SORRY NOT SORRY” – DJ Khaled f. JAY-Z, Nas & James Fauntleroy

“80 Barz” – Redman

The Funk Doctor Spot’s latest single title is self-explanatory. No hook is needed as Redman rattles off his barrel load of witty punchlines and comical one-liners awash with pop cultural and obscure Hip Hop references from the 1980s through today.

He congruently stacks them together in a lengthy stanza like a Tetris master over the “80 Barz” semi-electro rap beat. As viewed in his 4/20 Verzuz TV performance with Method Man, the 50-year-old New Jersey representative sounds more spry than he did 30 years ago in this cut.

“Scatter Brain” – Conway the Machine f. Ludacris & JID

“Nobles” – The Alchemist, Earl Sweatshirt, Navy Blue

“Big Boss Rabbit” – Freddie Gibbs

Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – “Indian Summer”

The Alchemist-produced album Haram from New York rap duo Armand Hammer will likely be off-putting to many. But if you can look past the slaughterhouse album cover and abrasive sounds, you’ll find some of the most powerfully potent raps of the year.

Among those is “Indian Summer,” a masterclass in poetics taught by Armand Hammer rappers Billy Woods and Elucid, backed by an eerie beat from Al. Woods and Elucid share a special bond on “Indian Summer” and that chemistry is apparent as the two wax philosophically about colonization, war and revenge.

“When Tony Met Sosa” – Benny The Butcher

“BUZZCUT” – BROCKHAMPTON F. Danny Brown

It’s been over a year since fans have heard a project from Hip Hop boyband BROCKHAMPTON, but time out of the spotlight has seemed to revitalize the group. At least, that’s the impression after hearing their return to the limelight banger “BUZZCUT.” It’s a move they’ve used before, dropping high-energy one-offs in anticipation of the actual project (I BEEN BORN AGAIN, 1998 TRUMAN). “BUZZCUT” follows the trend, serving up a trippy, boisterous banger to make the speakers pop.

“SHOOT MY SHOT” – IDK f. Offset

“Really Like That” – G Herbo

“Successful” – Young M.A

“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.

“Headshot” – Lil Tjay f. Polo G & Fivio Foreign

In New York, Lil Tjay is untouchable. At only 19 years old, the South Bronx rapper has already produced scores of NY classics, first with tracks such as “Mood Swings” and “Zoo York” and now with “Headshot,” awarding Tjay a spot in the Top 50 of Billboard’s Hot 100 charts. Lil Tjay reached out to Brooklyn’s Fivio Foreign and Chicago’s Polo G for assists — and none of the Drill aficionados disappointed. 

“Better You” – Evidence

“DIET_1.5” – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats f. Benny The Butcher

 

“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.     

“Ima Ball” – Kalan.Fr.Fr

With the release of his TwoFr2 project, Roc Nation artist Kalan.Fr.Fr updated his 2018 flagship effort with a mixed batch of fresh and melodic West Coast sounds. Within the array of intoxicating bangers, Kalan’s hybrid rap and R&B infused style flourish on “Ima Ball.” The catchy repetitive hook and rhythmic cadence lend the track an inherent bounce, allowing the Los Angeles rapper to flex his hit making capabilities. “Ima Ball” also signals his ascension from street level crooner into the position of a commercial artist.

“Day Glow” – Kota The Friend

“What It Feels Like” – Nipsey Hussle & JAY-Z

The triumphant brass kicking off “What It Feels Like” sounds like a coronation of the late great Nipsey Hussle’s spirited vocals. He runs another victory lap in the Hip Hop community’s collective heart as his “marathon continues.”

The collaborative single featuring JAY-Z has an uplifting, black fist-in-the-air energy which serves as the perfect match for urban cinema’s most powerful film of the new decade, Judas and The Black Messiah.

“Skegee” – JID

The Tuskegee experiments—in which the US Government intentionally injected a group of Black men with Syphilis to study the effects of the disease untreated for a span of 40 years— is one of the many atrocities committed against Black people after abolishing slavery. Events like these haven’t received proper reparations or make rights; instead, it’s expected for a simple apology and acknowledgement of the horrific, inhumane display to suffice, a promise that it will never happen again.

But that’s not good enough and as JID points out on his latest single, “Skegee,” the continued dominance of white capitalism over Black art while monstrosities such as this go unchecked creates a conundrum when a Black man’s talents are scouted and then recruited for institutional financial gain.

“Gang Signs” – Freddie Gibbs & ScHoolboy Q

“EPMD” – Nas & Hit-Boy

“Talk To Me” – Drakeo the Ruler & Drake

Most rappers go their entire careers without a verse, or even an acknowledgment, from Drake. But Los Angeles-based rapper Drakeo the Ruler caught the attention of the 6 God. Maybe it was Drakeo’s heroic plight over the LA justice system. Perhaps Drizzy was enamored by Drakeo’s unflinching rapping style. Whatever the reason, the two combined forces for “Talk To Me,” a monumental landmark in Drakeo’s discography which offers a rare glimpse at the reclusive Toronto-born superstar.

Drake and Drakeo trade contrasting verses over production from Elias Knight, jordanwtf and E.Y. The rap world is watching to see what the newly-freed Drakeo will do with this new attention.

“I Know” – 42 Dugg, Foogiano, TG Kommas

42 Duggs and Foogiano are two of the hottest rising stars in rap right now, each releasing multiple singles and projects that have established them as bankable stars. But on Dugg’s latest collaborative single “I Know,” it’s 21-year-old Boozie Badazz co-signed TG Kommas that shines with his chance in the spotlight, showing off his versatility singing and rapping throughout the track to deliver a performance to get his name on the radar.

“Last Man Standing” – Polo G

“Winter In America” – Freddie Gibbs

Gibbs croons a cover of late revered soul singer and rap progenitor Gil Scott-Heron and keyboardist Brian Jackson’s poignant, political 1974 album title track “Winter In America” for ESPN’s The Undefeated Black History Always/Music For the Movement Vol. 2 EP.

Produced by Brooklyn-based jazz artist Leon Michels, the updated track contains Hip Hop-oriented uptempo duple snare kicks, cymbal taps and a sauntering piano medley than the original’s downbeat marching band-style drums. The same sobering woodwinds remain in Gibbs’s version as the lyrics observe people living in a cold reality that society is still far behind achieving social justice. 

“Rainforest” – No Name

There are few artists capable of referencing critical race theory, class division and our society’s fascination with consumption in less than three minutes. On “Rainforest,” the latest single from the groundbreaking Chicago rapper,  Noname issues a masterclass in sharing her message while remaining accessible and understanding.

She drops loaded metaphors, referencing Frantz Fanon’s seminal text on race, The Wretched of the Earth, Medusa and Huey P. Newton’s autobiography Revolutionary Suicide with the focused pen of a wise sage. Ultimately, “Rainforest” is an exploration into perseverance. As Noname iterates her traumas and anxieties, she finds solace and strength knowing, despite the hindrances, she has and will continue to overcome.

“Real N-ggas Don’t Rap” – Babyface Ray

Babyface Ray isn’t concerned with awards or recognition. On the opening track to his debut major label EP Unfuckwitable, the Detroit rapper details his rise, rapping apathetically with a dead eyed stare. From sleeping on air mattresses to dressing up his closet with 20,000 saks just out of boredom, Babyface Ray lays out his journey to becoming a rap star, shrugging at the perks of being famous outside of the money in his bank account. 

“Rich N-gga Problems” – A$AP Rocky

Let It Breathe” – Joey Bada$$

Pro Era rap fans were undoubtedly hungry for more music from Joey Bada$$ following the release of The Light Pack EP at the tail end of 2020. That’s precisely his temporally aware bars sound so refreshing on his visual single “Let It Breathe.” Complimented by the mid-tempo muddled boom-bap production provided by Statik Selektah, Joey’s flow meanders between multi-tiered metaphors and brain-splitting aphorisms with the cerebral ideological might of Socrates — had the Greek philosopher hailed from New York City and pushed a lime green Porsche through the city.

“3:30 In Houston” – Benny The Butcher

Benny The Butcher recently revealed to DX he actually didn’t feel famous until he got shot in Houston last year during an attempted robbery. In reality, though, the incident merely boosted his star power rather than manifesting it, and “3:30 In Houston” certainly played a roll in the spike due to the ferocious lyrical nature of his rebuttal to the assailants. It’s a moment in which the Griselda MC’s trademarked street-enamored huste raps and tenacious hardened vernacular shine like a beacon, and serves as a testament to the strength of the chips bearing on his shoulders.

“The Hurt Business” – Westside Gunn, Smoke DZA, Wale DJ

The Griselda Conflicted film soundtrack was jam packed with the type of bars and lyrical heat that Hip Hop purists dream of. “The Hurt Business” single is like a dream-come-true as it aligns three different type of lyricists on one of the grimies, East Coast boom-bap beats of the year, thus far. Between the stabbing punchlines of Westside Gunn, the foggy finesse of Smoke DZA and Wale’s deductive flow, “The Hurt Business” is like a rap masterclass on how to properly execute barred-up collaborations without losing appeal.

“Welcome Home DMX” – Dave East DJ

“Rap Up 2020” – Uncle Murda DJ

“LeBron James”J. Stone f. Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy

All Money In rapper J. Stone has consistently elevated the legacy and memory of his dear friend, West Coast legend Nipsey Hussle, since his unfortunate death in 2019. Building onto the blueprint the Nip inspired with The Definition Of Loyalty, J. Stone continued the album saga in 2020 with The Definition Of Pain. Embedded within the 18-track project is the “LeBron James” collaboration featuring Dom Kennedy and a posthumous verse from Hussle that makes us fall in love with the drive and leadership the Victory Lap rapper embodies.

“AHHHHH, Pt. 2”YN Jay f. Sada Baby

Michigan is undeniably having a moment right now and as a result, there has been a nonstop flood of fledging artists and developing soundscapes emitting from the northern state. Flint rapper YN Jay, also known as the Coochie Man, is one the up-and-coming artists leading the charge and his “AHHHHH, Pt. 2” collaboration with Detroit’s own Sada baby is like a sneak peek into the future of Michigan’s music scene. It’s somewhat of a cross between the scammer raps popularized by Motor City artist Teejayx6 and the drilling hype Sada’s “Whole Lotta Choppas” hit record exudes.

“Joe Exotic”Westside Boogie

 

“Still Trappin” — Lil Durk f. King Von

It might be a new year, but Lil Durk picked-up right where he left off in 2020. The underdog MVP of last year, Durkio landed scores of high-profile features and released two well-received albums in Just Cause Y’all Waited 2 and The Voice. “Still Trappin,” from The Voice and it’s subsequent deluxe edition, features the best verse from King Von since his passing last November. Go Grizzly and Hitmaka sonically recreate the streets of O’Block with dark drums and a haunting baritone piano loop. Von and Durk had undeniably cohesive chemistry, and “Still Trappin” is a reminder of what could have been.

“Onna Come Up” — Lil Eazzyy

Lil Eazzyy closed out 2020 with a bang and is looking towards 2021 with big goals. His debut full-length Underrated, dropped last November, led by the single “Onna Come Up.” Now in the new year, Eazzyy released the remix to his most popular single, adding fellow Chicago rapper G Herbo. The drill-inspired rapper unloads a clip of fast raps on a Hugo Buck produced beat.  With Herbo’s verse added, “Onna Come Up” Lil Eazzyy is no longer on his way up rap’s hierarchy–he’s already there. 

“Overtime” — Baby Smoove

“My Puppy” — KEY! & Tony Seltzer

Atlanta rapper KEY! closed out 2020 with the most cohesive album of his career, The Alpha Jerk, produced in entirety by New York’s underground bard, Tony Seltzer. KEY! raps in a JPEGMAFIA-style stream of consciousness, pumping high-intensity bars that occasionally borderline on screaming. “My Puppy,” is the standout track from an overall excellent project. Tony pairs a whining, distorted synth with rounded, booming drums as KEY! uses the production like a playground, swinging from the monkey bars, taking rides down the slide and doing flips off the swings. 

“We Know The Truth” — Drakeo the Ruler, Icewear Vezzo, ALLBLACK

Despite the odds stacked so strongly against him, Los Angeles rapper Drakeo the Ruler continues to succeed. For years he fought a backwards conspiracy charge while being inhumanely muzzled and locked in solitary confinement. Last year, he managed to release Thank You For Using GTL. The album was recorded entirely over the phone from prison, which many have labeled the greatest rap album ever recorded from behind bars. Drakeo works at a breakneck pace, and has released both We Know The Truth (and its deluxe) and Because Y’all Asked since his release last November. “We Know The Truth” featuring Detroit’s Icewear Vezzo and burgeoning Oakland MC ALLBLACK, is a West Coast take on Midwestern Drill music.

“Guard Up” — Pooh Shiesty

The Pooh Shiesty stock is skyrocketing like GameStop; the only difference is there’s no crash in sight. The latest in a series of phenomenal young artists to arise from Memphis, Shiesty slid into prominence through an onslaught of single releases, including his latest “Guard Up.” Rapping is too easy for the 20-year-old MC who takes a lackadaisical approach as he maneuvers across the TP808 produced beat, finding pockets with ease, contorting his voice to push the boundaries of the rhyme patterns. The entire rap world has their eyes on Pooh Shiesty as we approach his debut album. So far he has yet to disappoint.

OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM JANUARY 2021

  • “Ain’t Got TIme” – Lil Wayne f. Foushee
  • “Bop” – CJ
  • “Dead Broke” – Lil Skies
  • “Sunshine (The Light)” – Fat Joe, DJ Khaled & Amorphous
  • “State of the Union” – Marlon Craft
  • “Last Day In” – Kodak Black
  • “6 N Da Morning” – Los & Nutty
  • “Help” – Peewee Longway & Cassius Jay f. Wicced
  • “Trap It Out” – Peewee Longway & Cassius Jay f. Lil Baby
  • “Luka Brazy Gates Flow” – HoneyKomb Brazy
  • “My Puppy” – KEY! & Tony Seltzer
  • “Clinical” KEY! & Tony Seltzer
  • “Big Business” – Trapland Pat
  • “Risky” – Lil Moe 6Blocka
  • “GodHands” – Evilbabyjoker
  • “Moving Dangerous” – Kell Honcho
  • “Trap Mode” – YG Teck f. Pooh Shiesty
  • “Question For You” – YG Teck
  • “Gnat” – Eminem
  • “Oxycodone Mixture” – CEO Trayle
  • “Foe Minutes Of Hell” Sada Baby
  • “Walk Down Again” – Doe Boy
  • “SFX Room” – Tony Shhnow
  • “False Evidence Appearing Real” – Chris Crack
  • “AHHHHHH PT.2” – YN Jay f. Sada Baby 
  • “Take Out” – Jay Critch
  • “Breathe” – Navy Blue f. yasiin bey
  • “Chicken N Dumplins” – Grip
  • “Trapp Back” – YSN f. Foogiano
  • “Off The Porch” – Key Glock
  • “6 Foot 7 Foot” – 26AR & Tazzo B
  • “Chosen” – Taleban Dooda f. T9ine

OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM FEBRUARY 2021

  • “Dawn Toliver” – Drakeo the Ruler, Don Toliver, Ketchy the Great
  • “Get Off My Yard” – Marlon Craft
  • “Welcome To America” – Black Thought
  • “Trying To Maintain” – Ice Cube
  • “I Know” – 42 Dugg, Foogiano, TG Kommas
  • “MAZZA” – Slowthai & A$AP Rocky
  • “Bruuuh [Remix]” -JID, Denzel Curry
  • “no safety” – Baby Hot DB
  • “Somethin’ Ain’t Right” – Masego, JID, Rapsody
  • “A Man Apart (Intervention) – Rx Papi
  • “Neighbors” Pooh Shiesty ft. BIG30
  • “Methods” – Mavi
  • “Say A Prayer” – Jim Jones, Harry Fraud. Curren$y, Jay Worthy
  • “Grow Privately” – Chris Crack
  • “Freestyle” – Lil Eazzyy
  • “T.Titan” – Thouxanbanfauni
  • “Batman” – LPB Poody
  • “61st to 64th” – Lil Zay Osama
  • “Bird Box Part 2” Rx Papi ft. Boldly James
  • “Yucc” – Rx Papi
  • “Like This” – 2KBABY & Marshmello
  • “Go Big” – YG & Big Sean
  • “Money Long” – DDG f. OG Parker & 42 Dugg
  • “‘Cosmic’.4a [The Alchemist Version Feat. Joey Bada$$] – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats

OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM FROM MARCH 2021

  • Ziplock – Saba
  • Aye – Thouxanbanfauni 
  • SITUATIONS – Paris Texas
  • Fashion – Pop Smoke f. PoloG