With the release of Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance the debate has begun. Who has the better dance? Drake or Beyoncé. Soon HipHopDX will settle this with a review but for now fans are still taking in Queen B’s latest. Although Beyoncé is dominating the headlines, July featured some of the best R&B/Pop albums this year. While Burna Boy got the world grooving with Love, Damimi, two post-breakout artists made the transition from next up to established hitmakers. Both Brent Faiyaz and Steve Lacy leveled up with their albums as well, making as big of an impact on the charts as they did for summer fling playlists. All of this culminates in a summer that so far musically has passed the vibe check. HipHopDX will be narrowing down the year’s releases to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects.
Struggling to find a list of the Hip Hop Albums that have been shifting the culture? Take a look at our lists for Hip Hop, Rap and R&B to get a complete survey of the projects that are dictating the conversation around Hip Hop culture.
Need some new songs to throw in the rotation but Spotify and user-created playlists are way too long? We kept it simple and added only the best of the best songs from each month to make sure you get the songs you need without a hassle. Peep the lists below.
Looking for some up and coming rappers and underground gems? We’ve done the work for you and highlighted the short EPs, mixtapes and projects to check out if you’re tired of the mainstream album cycle.
RENAISSANCE – Beyoncé
Ahead of the release of her seventh studio album Renaissance, Beyoncé released a message; this project would be dedicated to JAY-Z, her uncle Jonny and the LGBTQ+ community. The album has been framed as an escape from a seemingly endless pandemic, regressive politics and uneasiness in the world. So, despite the early leaks, copyright claims and drama, RENAISSANCE still feels like a blessing. Spanning 16-tracks, Bey’s most recent effort is eclectic and grandiose in scale. It enlists the help of Drake, 070 Shake, Grace Jones, Tems and more, not to mention superstar producers ranging from The-Dream, Mike Dean and The Neptunes. The introspective and intimate ballads of Lemonade have given way to something more lively, a dance-fueled album which pulls from the sounds of House, Afrobeats, Pop and more.
WASTELAND – Brent Faiyaz
Brent Faiyaz starts his new album WASTELAND with a philosophical inquiry: can a man still be fundamentally good with a past tarnished by sins and mistakes? The binary between good and bad has been a theme Faiyaz has played with since his previous album Fuck The World, but on WASTELAND he bares all of his faults and forces the listener to reckon with their perception of him. Where Fuck The World and 2017’s Sonder Son embraced plug-and-play formats, WASTELAND feels more insular, as though it was created in a vacuum, safe from the ubiquitous drone which fills so many playlists.His latest doesn’t stray too far from his past work, but the inscrutable attention to detail is the closest he’s gotten to nailing his intention.
GEMINI RIGHTS – Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy will play both sides of the Gemini antagonist card, lover and/or heartbreaker, as long as he gets his feelings out on paper. Gemini Rights, his sophomore album, may be his most divulging work to date, a delightful insane experience of colors through sound. Ten songs capture ten moments in time through prancing drums, liquid riffs and sometimes, by simple crooning syllables. “Bad Habits” sounds like the 2019 demo track “Dark Red,” featuring distinct lackadaisical funk. That’s thanks to bouncing snares and whimsical synths, a signature sound Lacy remains tried and true to because it’s quite effective. Even still, his Gemini Rights take new heights, peeling back the layers of Lacy with each song. “Give You The World” pulls from 70s’ dance floor slow jams, soft grunge rock and R&B meet in “Buttons,” and a Mariachi band carries the rhythm in “Mercury.” And if his range wasn’t expansive enough, his feature selections prove less is more with Matt Martian and Foushee (who practically made “Sunshine” her own). Gemini Rights is an ear-pleasing saga and evidence of Lacy’s comfortability with self and creative freedom. The album focuses on feels rather than facts, resulting in a project with the potential to withstand the wear of time.
HONESTLY NEVERMIND – Drake
The only way for Drake to get bigger is to go back to the songs that did a billion streams and embedded themselves in listeners’ collective consciousness: “One Dance,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “Take Care.” Minimal swearing, friendly to all settings, inoffensive enough to play in the background but thoughtful enough to reward closer listening. Honestly, Nevermind is an understated pop album made to be listened to with other people, a Drake album with refreshingly low stakes, much to its advantage. This pivot also offers Drake a way to relate to listeners without sharing too much of himself. Pop music often hinges on non-specificity, allowing listeners to fill in the silhouettes of “you” and “me” with their own personal details. Throughout Honestly, Nevermind, his verses are spare, often allowing the production to communicate as much of the emotion as his pleas for connection. Honestly, Nevermind isn’t for everyone, but it will be everywhere. As the late Virgil Abloh says halfway through the album, “We weren’t supposed to come up with something this clean. Like, something happened.” He stopped making the Drake album we want him to make and made the Drake album Drake wanted to make.
LOST SOULS – Vory
Vory, known for his delicate voice and seamless harmonies, is often thought of as a filler piece for Ye, but on his latest he reminds those who haven’t been paying attention of his own prowess as a songwriter. Led by “Do Not Disturb,” the late night club anthem which features NAV and Yung Bleu and the Yeezy-assisted “Daylight,” the rest of the fifteen songs boast Vory’s singing with a bit of help from Beam, Fresco Trey and Landstrip Chip.
BLUE WATER ROAD – Kehlani
While Kehlani’s sophomore work pined for growth without knowing how to get there, the singer’s third album Blue Water Road is assiduous in examining internal faults.Blue Water Road’s frank maturity, even with its brief detours, reveals an artist’s authentic pursuit of happiness. From Kehlani’s candid songwriting to Blue Water Road’s vibrant backdrops, the album serves as evidence of what happens when someone finally begins to take responsibility for their own happiness. What emerges is something that treads into uncharted waters and even if it isn’t fully understood yet, it can at times be quite a spectacle.
HEART ON MY SLEEVE – Ella Mai
Ella Mai’s sophomore release is far easier felt than understood. Between songs about making up and breaking up, there is no obvious resolution offered to the soft-hearted singer. At the same time, the tracklist is one that forgoes logic for emotion; and so, there isn’t as much of a need for a clear cut solution. What truly allows the album to pull off the back and forth of heartache is the consistency with which Ella Mai enters into a state of total surrender.
HYPNOS – Rayvn Lenae
Ravyn Lenae’s first full length feature pours vocal melodies over a more stripped down sound for a lucid listening experience. HYPNOS houses a fundamental shift in focus from Steve Lacey’s live instrumentals to Lenae’s vocals; although Lacey still shreds sweetly on “Skin Tight,” soft percussive productions and electronic synths are prioritized to showcase the Chicago R&B icon’s uniquely high but dulcet soprano. The pleasantly simplified production of looped beats leave ample room for Lenae to stretch out her lyrical limbs. Playing with perspective on “Venom,” the singer is omniscient as she knowingly asks an unsuspecting partner, “Why do you play me for a fool?” Given how Ravyn Lenae clearly challenged herself with pen on paper, HYPNOS is seemingly reminiscent of her very own evolution. “Where I’m From,” is a testimony of a track that enlists the help of Mereba. Accompanied by a trickling acoustic guitar, Lenae looks at her life like a landscape, watching it and singing even as it unfolds right before her eyes. “Watch me spread my wings,” she demands. Ravyn Lenae moves through each song at her own intuitive pace. With Smino on call, “3D,” arrives as an opportunity to pick up sonic speed; instead, a natural rhythmic progression is built and maintained over the course of the dreamily cohesive record. “Keep it light (keep it light) things are better movin’ slow / Feelin’ nice (feelin’ nice) let’s keep it flowin’ natural,” Lenae muses, holding the listener captive in the trance that is HYPNOS.
Letter To Your Ex EP – Mahalia
Sharp-witted observations with a raw twist of heartbreaking honesty are the foregrounds of what Mahalia delivers on her newest EP, Letters To Ur Ex. The five-song neo-soul-esque collection is hardbound by two distinct sonnets that feel as if they were written exclusively to one another: “Letter To Ur Ex,” inspired by her partner’s old flame, and “Letter To Ur N(ex)t,” from the perspective of another woman. Written simply in the middle, “Forever” imagines the type of love worth fending off former flings for at all costs. The three-minute ballad is equal parts an ode to commitment and the obligations that ultimately come at the expense of one’s independence, respectfully. The Leicester-born R&B singer’s knack for smooth hooks with a tinge of Miss Lauryn Hill’s soulful production pushes the EP to burst with life while dabbling in pop-like choruses that still allow for Mahalia’s breathy voice to take flight. But what makes tracks such as “Forever” a standout from past repertoire is the directness of warning herself against taking love for granted, weaving back and forth from bliss to reality. Although it’s only five tracks deep, its richness in storytelling is what sets the bar for Mahalia this year.
BROKEN HEARTS CLUB – Syd
Graduating from group to solo success isn’t a leisurely transformation. Despite it, the R&B antihero, Mrs. steal your girl, Syd, does it like child’s play. Her latest album, Broken Hearts Club, details Syd’s tale of passionate pre-pandemic heartbreak. Even though Syd’s music in the past has painted a portrait of carefree relationships, this time, she’s more vulnerable than ever before. Broken Hearts Club makes way for celestial-‘80s-R&B that dives into other portals of sound while never breaking too far off. Soul and early ‘00s R&B guitar grooves melt their way through the record, ditching the pop mindset she once harbored with albums like Fin and the 3-track EP Always Never Home. Heartbreak might be the tying theme, but in the end, Syd respectfully drives back to what she knows: freedom and learning to let her lovers go. Broken Hearts Club mirrors Syd’s journey, and it’s one we can’t help but watch all the way through. – Holly Alvarado
SUNSET VISIONARY VOL. 2 – Tom The Mail Man
In a music industry dominated by flashy trends and repurposed nostalgia, it’s an increasingly difficult task to determine what’s real and what’s posturing. This dilemma is what makes listening to Tom The Mail Man’s Sunset Visionary, Vol. 2 so refreshing: across the emo punk-riddled tracklist of Tom’s latest, there’s nothing fraudulent in sight. There’s a handful of artists who have leaned into the revival of pop-punk and emo, but more often than not, these attempts feel forced, gripping onto a sonic moment with the hopes of making a quick buck. Tom’s art is rooted in the emotional delivery; the guitar-forward sound is just a byproduct. Songs such as the steamrolling “FWM2” are ripe with unbridled angst. Others, like “Brown Eyes and Backwoods,” are delicate and light, a youthful dedication to a lover. Exuberant, lively and grippingly real, Sunset Visionary, Vol 2. is a landmark achievement in the young artist’s career. – David Brake
BEFORE YOU GO – Blxst
Taking the reigns from the past vanguard of R&B legends, Blxst, the breakout Los Angeles sensation, first turned heads on 2020’s No Love Lost and its deluxe, a sweeping project which featured Ty Dolla $ign, Dom Kennedy and longtime collaborator Bino Rideaux. The emotive crooner’s latest album Before You Go picks up right where he last left off, blending the sounds of traditional R&B with more contemporary Californian notes. Blxst rides between the borders of R&B subgenres on Before You Go, playing with the tones of classic soul and regional L.A. sounds. There’s something for all occasions; love ballads, like the Arin Ray-assisted “Fake Love In LA,” smooth club bops such as “Sometimes” with Zacari and dusk driving tracks like “Still Omw.” – David Brake
WHO CARES?! – Rex Orange County
Rex Orange County returns after a long hiatus with his new album Who Cares?!. The singer weighs on existential dread and purpose over bright beats and warm production. His welcome return is sure to soundtrack coffee dates, walks in the parks and medium-level difficulty hikes for all of 2022.
CANDY DRIP – Lucky Daye
For all your smooth-tunes needs, look no further than Lucky Daye’s Candydrip. One of R&B’s most promising rookies, Daye’s been at it for a while but last year’s Table For Two was one of 2021’s best releases in the genre. Candydrip is similarly paced, a rolling album full of emotive singing and impassioned features from Lil Durk, Smino and Chiiild.
ALPHA – Shenseea
Shenseea, the Jamaican Dancehall sensation, was spotted on the Donda stage during one of Kanye West’s listening sessions and has used that attention to catapult herself into Hip Hop and R&B’s mainstream with latest album ALPHA. On her latest album, Shenseea managed to wrangle an impressive cast of guests from Tyga and 21 Savage to Megan Thee Stallion and Sean Paul.
GOOD MORNING GORGEOUS – Mary J Blige
Shortly before performing at what many are calling the greatest Super Bowl Halftime Show in history, Mary J. Blige released her first album in two years titled Good Morning Gorgeous. The last project listeners received was in 2020 when she dropped the deluxe edition to her classic 1994 album My Life, so new music is a cause for celebration. Led by a titular single and the followed-up with “Rent Money,” which placed the “Family Affair” singer alongside fellow New Yorker Dave East for a soulful collaboration. Good Morning Gorgeous resists familiar themes in Blige’s work of love and heartbreak, but even if the subject matter has been heard before, there’s something special about watching a master at their craft. Blige’s dexterous and expressive voice wraps around the heavy instrumentals. Though she’s singing in line with a very traditional style of R&B, Blige still sounds fresh as ever.
DAWN.FM – The Weeknd
Dawn FM traps the listener in Purgatory, as The Weeknd gathers an audience for his sonic love letter to the 80s, marked by the metallic sounds of Depeche Mode, The Human League and all-night disco parties. The euphoria of 80s R&B, new wave and synth pop carry the superstar to a new height. The album is an exhibition of pure ambition from an artist that’s reached the mountaintop. It’s apparent that this was the album The Weeknd always wanted to make, whose flair for the dramatic and glamour always aligned with the bygone icons of the 80s.
Three Dimensions Deep – Amber Mark
Amber Mark made a name with R&B recreations of beloved 90s songs such as Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” and Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” But the Tennessee songstress has her own story to tell. On Three Dimensions Deep, Mark bares all her hurt and insecurities, enveloped in existential dread and life’s cruel clutches. The multi-faceted album brings her songwriting and vocal performance to new heights, with Mark pondering the universe’ greatest ills and vices. The complex project proves Mark’s lofty ambitions are attainable, finding comfort in the absurdity of self discovery.
Caprisongs – FKA Twigs
On her first major label release, FKA twigs takes the veiled and aloof image of her public existence and shatters it with every wispy utterance. Caprisongs, while retaining the avant-garde spirit that marked her numerous EPs, is a genre-bending pop experiment that unlocks the human shrouded underneath the artist after years of emotional and relational upheaval. She’s fully in control of her narrative, whether she’s delivering a self-confidence sermon over choral arrangements on the spacy “meta angel,” covering herself in traditional R&B emotionality on the dancefloor-infused “tears in the club,” or flexing her chemistry with the likes of Jorja Smith and Pa Salieu. There’s no moment where twigs feels disingenuous: each stylistic foray registers as part of her lexicon and each gut-punching lyric feels ripped from her heart.
KEYS – Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys is undoubtedly one of the most decorated R&B artists of all time. But beyond just the accolades and notoriety, 20 years into her career, Keys is still delivering innovative work. The double-LP starts off with a menacing Pusha T feature that sets the tone for an unpredictable ride through 26 tracks. The genre-bending album provides something for every sector of her fanbase without compromising its artistic core. The project also marks the singer’s final album on her label deal, leaving many fans looking forward to what she does next independently.
No I’m Not OK – Bleu
The artist formerly known as Yung Bleu continues to let his talent speak for itself. Bleu is one of the few newer artists who seems to stay out of the negative headlines while he focuses on crafting his sound and dropping quality music. No I’m Not OK finds the HipHopDX Rising Star effortlessly crafting unique melodies and memorable flows as he pours his heart into each of the five songs on the EP. Bleu has pop sensibilities without ever abandoning his Hip Hop roots, a blend that is bound to take him to superstar heights.
R&B? – Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack has always stuck to the quality over quantity motto when it comes to her release schedule. With that being said, even a 3-song EP is a gift from the multi-talented artist. Whack explores death, sorrow and love throughout the project as she continues to bring memorable flows and melodies to the table with every new drop. The project is part of a set of a set of three EPs that show her versatility and ability to effortlessly jump between genres.
It can be really tough to keep track of all the great music from 2021. Luckily we’ve narrowed down the list to only the essentials!
Editor’s Note: Albums from this list were released between June 1, 2021 – December 1, 2021.
Still Over It – Summer Walker
Summer Walker has supplanted herself in the public eye, both through her outstanding introductory projects Last Day of Summer and Over It and her tumultuous relationship with Atlanta producer London On Da Track. In doing so, she’s opened herself up to judgment and speculation about every aspect of her life: her pregnancy, breakup with London and subsequent mental health. On Still Over It, Walker combats swirling narratives by utilizing the biggest draw in her artistry — her vulnerability. She displays an innate storytelling ability, marked with raw details about the intricacies of her emotions. Refusing to hold back, Walker covers the project in personal drama, navigating a balancing act between compelling and gratuitous.
If Orange Was A Place – Tems
Tems exhibits a mastery in emotional expression on this brief EP. She ignores any urge to withhold feelings, displaying unrelenting vulnerability on tracks such as “Avoid Things ” and “Crazy Tings,” ruminating on the themes of toxicity and failed relationships. Her voice drills to the souls of her audience, skating over vibrant horns and succulent melodies with ease. If Orange Was A Place carries her momentum from a star performance on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy forward without missing a beat.
Dawn – Yebba
The list of artists who have solo interludes on a Drake project includes Kendrick Lamar, Sampha, Skepta and now Yebba. After many called “Yebba’s Heartbreak” a standout moment on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, the singer took advantage of the moment by releasing a stellar new project. Dawn is filled with angelic vocal harmonies and heartfelt lyrics that prove she is here to stay.
Contributing writers: Trent Clark, Kyle Eustice, Josh Svetz, Dana Scott, David Brake, Devon Jefferson, Michael Saponara, Kia Turner, Anthony Malone, Matthew Ritchie, Ben Brutocao and Jeremy Hecht.
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM NOVEMBER 2021
- DRONES – Terrace Martin
- Intimadated – KAYTRANADA
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM OCTOBER 2021
- Juno – Remi Wolf
- Wildest Dreams – Majid Jordan
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM SEPTEMBER 2021
- If Orange Was A Place – Tems
- Dawn – Yebba
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM AUGUST 2021
- FLOAT – K CAMP
- TBH – Bri Steves
- Girl Magic – BLK