A rundown of my favourite 15 Hip-Hop albums of 2021. It's been a decent year for Hip-Hop albums, so here's my favourites. I haven't been as on the ball as I usually am in regards to listening to EVERY single album that is released due to being flat out trying to get my own music finished and released, but, I'm still a fan first. I may have some glaring misses but these are all albums that provided replay value for me. If you don't agree with my picks, write your list down on a piece of paper, along with my email address, and shove it right up ya cakehole, I couldn't care less. These are MY picks. Enjoy!
15: Nas - King's Disease II
Release date: 6th August 2021
I wasn’t really expecting much from this. How mad is that!? I mean, Nas is legendary. But, being legendary shouldn’t mean ANYONE gets a free ride or is a shoo-in for plaudits. I thought Nas’ first collaboration project with Hit Boy was just okay. So, when I heard they were hooking up for a second installment, I wasn’t overly excited about it. But I was pleasantly surprised. Hit Boy’s production is solid for the vast majority and it seems Nas’ fabled/or not (depending on your point of view) tin ear for a beat isn’t at play here. I mean, yeah, there’s a couple of duds, but it’s a lot better curated than KD1. Let’s start with the duds.
40 Side. Uggghh. Nas, for some reason, adopts that run-of-the-mill flow that you’ll hear from a million and one Soundcloud rappers from the “newer” era. It actually sounds dumbed down. I hate this track.
Then there’s YKTV. The guest spots should have been a red flag. Boogie Wit da Hoodie and YG didn’t actually scream out lyrical, but these guys are extra dung. I mean, it may be a tad unfair to expect much from the pen of two artists that aren’t really renowned for that (I hope they aren’t anyway) but it’s just so shoulder shruggingly, well, meh. This seems like a blatant attempt by Nasir to resonate with a demographic that may or may not be bothered about a Nas album. It all seems so cynical.
The production on both tracks is completely generic. No amount of cowbell (I LOVE cowbell) can save YKTV. With its dud 808 and corny use of sirens, it’s high-grade, average at best fodder. They both sound like an attempt at a modern Hip-Hop beat that you’d find as a pre-packaged preset in any DAW. There’s more melody in one of my Sunday morning farts than on both of them tracks combined. Nas is far, far better than this.
Thankfully, the rest of the album doesn’t follow suit. Standout tracks for me are “My Bible”, “Nobody” (with a welcome feature from Lauryn Hill), and “Brunch on Sundays”. The rest of the album is solid and plays better if you just let it play through (obviously skipping the two aforementioned dung tracks).
So, all in all, a decent/good album. “Well, why is it in your top 15 then?” I hear you ask. Well, because it’s Nas sounding comfortable over good production (for the most part) in 2021. Nas has been unfairly judged against Illmatic for his whole career and there’s going to be an element that won’t be happy until he makes an album with DJ Premier/Pete Rock/Large Pro etc etc. I for one, couldn’t give a flying rats arse if he never makes that album. Especially not if it’s just to silence people. I’m not interested in a 48-year-old Nas trying to recreate the energy and tone of his former self. It’s been nearly 30 years; let it the fuck go.
With all that, Nas creeps into my top 15.
14: Benny the Butcher - The Plugs I Met 2
Release date: 19th March 2021
It's well documented, to those who know me anyway, that I'm not a huge fan of Griselda's music. I respect what they've done in creating their own lane with the grimey sound, but I find a lot of the production on the majority of projects, very uninspiring and to put it bluntly, bland. This is not the case here. Harry Fraud SLAYS the production on this. Benny the Butcher is a great emcee and I was happy to see him branch out with what I'd consider far more interesting production choices on this offering. The amazing artwork (huge bigup to Ral Duke from South Wales) sets the tone here. Coke deals and street tales aren't actually boundary-pushing but not everything has to be and Benny the Butcher's pen game is one of the best in that particular realm. A huge standout for me is the album intro proper, "Overall", featuring Chinx. If you ever find yourself smuggling cocaine through the freeways of Miami, make sure you play this while doing it. I mean, it won't help you if you get caught by Dade County's finest, but, you'll look cool as fuck to any onlookers, getting dragged from your rented Cadillac, a shotgun to your dome, with this blasting out of the whip's speakers. I must stress, I am not responsible for anyone getting 15-25 years for coke smuggling. That's your own stupid fault.
13: Napoleon Da Legend & Amerigo Gazaway - The World Changed
Release date: 19th November 2021
Napoleon Da Legend hooks up with Bay Area DJ/Producer Amerigo Gazaway on some Soulful Boom Bap goodness. I stumbled on Gazaway's music on Bandcamp, he does a lot of remixes/mashups, all top quality too.
Napoleon Da Legend has a ton of music out there too, and this is a good addition to both of their ever-expanding discographies. It’s one of those “does exactly what it says on the tin” kind of albums. I’d hate for that to be misconstrued, what I mean is, it’s got that classic Soulful Boom Bap vibe that while it’s nothing we haven’t heard before, it certainly has great melodies and sample choices throughout. Everything is clean, polished, and very head nod worthy. Will it be an album with huge replay value? only time will tell. I’m still on my early few listens, but it made enough of an impression on me to make it into my top 15 at such short notice. Solid.
12: Armand Hammer & The Alchemist - Haram
Release date: 26th March 2021
The Alchemist has been a stalwart in Hip-Hop for decades now and what I thought would be a mini career renaissance a few years back, has snowballed into him being one of the most revered producers out there, period. He’s adapted his sound and cultivated a signature style. Now, it’s not always to my personal taste as I’m not a huge fan of the drumless beats/loops, but, when it’s done right, it can provide a rich soundscape. This is exactly what Haram is. I’m a huge Billy Woods fan, and to be completely honest, I was cautious at how his abstract style, along with Elucid, would mesh with Alchemist’s style. But, no need for caution, the styles mesh perfectly. When I bought this, I put my headphones on, turned the lights down, and just zoned out to the whole thing, no skipping. I’d suggest you do the same.
11: Guilty Simpson & Gensu Dean - Ego
Release date: 8th October 2021
Guilty Simpson could rap over a Coldplay instrumental and sound like the most street motherfucker on the planet. Thankfully, he decides against rapping over middle-class pansy angst in musical form and instead chooses Gensu Dean to handle production. Good choice Mr. Simpson, good choice. This album is pure filth. The first thing that struck me was Gensu Dean, in the first 3 tracks, uses the same samples and the same drum break as I have on my own productions, on each occasion. I had to put the lawsuit on hold when my lawyer told me “Gensu Dean hasn’t heard ANY of your music, stop with the delusion, idiot”. So, yeah, Gensu Dean has a great ear for a sample. Guilty Simpson is one of my favourite emcees out there. What could go wrong? Absolutely nish. Breezes into my top 15.
10: Evidence - Unlearning Vol.1
Release date: 25th June 2021
I’m a huge Dilated Peoples fan, and also a fan of all the members in their respective solo careers. So, a new Evidence album is always something that I’ll look forward to. 2018’s “Weather or Not” was a pleasure and Unlearning carries on with similar soundscapes and vibes, to my ear anyway. Evidence just seems to excel on poignant tracks, “evidenced” (groan) on “Lost in Time (Park Jams)”, produced by probably my favourite producer out there at the moment, Nottz. Impeccable production choices throughout (tip of my hat to EARDRUM (Qthree) by the way), effortless slow flow raps from an artist comfortable in his prime and great guest spots make this a definite top 10 album for me.
09: Skyzoo - All the Brilliant Things
Release date: 11th June 2021
In my opinion, Skyzoo has one of the most quality consistent discographies out there. 10+ albums and a ton of mixtapes and EP’s make him one of the more active emcees in Hip-Hop. His run of 7 albums, from 2021’s “A Dream Deferred” right through to his 2019 collab album with Pete Rock is one hell of a run! All the Brilliant Things is another high-quality album. Skyzoo is one of the best beat pickers out there too. Album curation isn’t a strong point for a lot of my favourite artists but you get the feeling Skyzoo spends a lot of time tailoring the album's production to match his mood and content, even down to the album titles and artwork. I’m not really a fan of a whole bunch of different producers on a project, but the aforementioned curation means this doesn’t sound like a load of random tracks, thrown together to make an album. It has a running sonic vibe throughout. Effortlessly Jazzy and Soulful.
08: Kev Brown & J Scienide - Stray From The Pack
Release date: January 8th 2021
Oh hell yeah!. This is what I’m talking about! Kev Brown is another producer who I highly respect. Everything he touches is raw gold. Drums are always knocking, basslines are always thick and his choice of samples is exemplary. Emcee wise, Washington’s J Scienide provides a great foil in vocal tone to Kev Brown’s more monotone voice, they mesh so well. Siberian Summer is a huge standout. The familiar melody of Henry Mancini (I think?) makes way to an almost unsettling, creepy instrumental. A fresh take on what is a heavily used sample. That’s what a good producer can do. Cutless Supreme, Ring Bells, Out the Safari…all BANGERS!. In fact, there’s not a single skippable track here. The whole album has the vibe of a 90’s album that’s been put through an audio time warp device to keep it from sounding dated. A hard feat to accomplish, splicing classic and modern. Kev Brown & J Scienide make easy work of it.
07: Common - A Beautiful Revolution (Pt 2)
Release date: 10th September 2021
I’ve never not liked a Common album (Electric Circus was removed from my memory via brain scraping a long, long time ago). He’s a gem of an artist within Hip-Hop that doesn’t always get the props his legendary status warrants. “A Beautiful Revolution (Pt 2)” is a great addition to his top-tier discography. “A Beautiful Chicago Kid” is a stomping, fist-in-the-air anthem. Man, I fucking love this track. “When We Move”, damn, so good. Featuring the absolute beast that is Black Thought and Sean Kuti, son of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. If this doesn’t make you clap ya hands and stomp ya feet, you may not have a pulse, or, you could simply be in a place where you’d look like a crazy person doing so. Either way, it’s simply brilliant. “Poetry” has that old Blues feel to it, right up my street. I get the feel of a celebration of black brilliance and pride throughout the course of the album. When we get to this part of my list, there’s not gonna be a lot of albums with many skips, if at all. This is another. Mature in sound and content but still has more than enough to interest and move the younger generation too. Top quality.
06: Dark Time Sunshine - LORE
Release date: 4th February 2021
DTS are normally a guarantee for a spot in my top 5 albums of the year. Such is the quality of the top 5 this year, they just miss out. I’m sure Onry Ozzborn and Zavala will be absolutely devastated when they hear the news. Jokes aside, this is a great album. Zavala’s varied, interesting use of sound has always resonated with me and there’s not many better at drum programming than him, just listen to “Familiars” for proof. DTS have always been what would be considered “alternative” or “experimental” but if you appreciate good music, you’ll certainly resonate with their style, or at least respect it. I’m a huge fan of Zavala’s production (yes, I know I’ve stated that already) and he’s crafted a varied, electronic-influenced batch of beats that Onry Ozzborn sounds so comfortable on. Tracks can vary between dreamy (“Ayemen”) and brooding (“Poor Pavel”) in both sound and content but everything is seeped in the DTS ethos. Off-kilter, not quite what you’d expect Hip-Hop to sound like. It’s almost THEIR sound, that nobody else has. For me, that’s a major reason why I love Dark Time Sunshine.
05: Aesop Rock & Blockhead - Garbology
Release date: 12th November 2021
Every time I see an Aesop Rock review, they always mention that “some people like him, some people hate him”. That’s of course a paraphrase, but I’ll just say, if you aren’t on board with Aesop Rock’s genius and artistry by now, you probably never will be. He’s actually maturing into one of the best all-around artists in Hip-Hop, scratch that, music. His last 3 albums have all been top-tier album-of-the-year contenders, and his production level on those albums puts him up there with the very best in that realm too.
But, enough about that, Blockhead handles the production on this offering. They’ve worked together in the past and have a bonafide underground classic together in 2007’s “None Shall Pass”. This is a meeting of a top-tier producer, not afraid to push the boundaries, and an artist whose inimitable style makes him the perfect accompaniment for Blockhead’s brain bleeds. It’s such a trip of an album. “Wolf Piss” has a Middle Eastern vibe in parts, and Aesop sounds like he’s adopting traits of that “generic Soundcloud rapper” flow I lambasted Nas for earlier in the list, but this feels more tongue in cheek. One of my favourite tracks carries on with the Middle Eastern vibe. It has a warped vocal that adds to the background of the rolling bass. The beat switch-up after the first hook is great. Some top-level lyricism is at play on this. Quick! To Google we all go!.
The album is so layered and can’t be appreciated via a quick skim through the tracks. I keep telling people to get back to making listening to music, something you make time in your day/week for. Pick a few albums. Get some good headphones and get comfortable. Don’t put the album on while you do work on the PC. Immerse yourself in it. This is an album that deserves this.
04: Th1rt3en: A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism
Release date: 22nd January 2021
This album hit me like a ton of bricks when it was released and I’m still heavily playing it almost 12 months after release. A dark, brooding, and uncompromising piece of art. Pharoahe Monch is my G.O.A.T. Let’s get that out of the way first. The man has been releasing music for 3 decades and his skill set as an emcee is still far superior to most. Most meaning probably everyone but Black Thought as I can’t separate them, strictly from an emcee standpoint. His flow is razor-sharp. Unlike other emcees who are known to be “technical” (I think we all know who I’d be referring to), Monch has so much character and charisma in his delivery that it’s always palatable to the ears, rather than grating, however complex he chooses to get. For this album, he has Marcus Machado on guitar and Daru Jones on drums.
High. Level. Musicianship. Put that alongside one of the greatest to ever do it and it’s almost a guarantee of quality.
The album starts off sparse, letting Monch’ voice be the main instrument. “The Magician” changes it up. High energy, wailing guitars and Monch singing his sermon in the hook. This will be a festival circuit favourite I think. ”Fight” was one of the singles and is very Rage Against the Machine. Okay, it’s a very lazy comparison, as anything that fuses Rock and Hip-Hop so well will always get a Rage comparison. “Racist” is pure noir cinema. Pharoahe Monch shows his storytelling skills and weaves a 3rd person storyline over a brutal beat that switches up and changes the mood as the story unfolds. Everything after keeps your focused attention, then, the coup de grâce:
Kill, Kill, Kill. Oh fuck yeah!!!
This is my track of the year. It’s like someone jumped inside my brain and pulled out decades of remnants of memories of Sci-fi films, hammer horror synth sounds, and nightmares I’d have as a child after renting too many B-movies from my local video store. The synth in the hook is just the best thing I’ve heard in a track in a long time. It’s so zany. This is a triumph of a track. This kind of track makes me so appreciative that we have artists out there that aren’t governed and molded by record companies that serve, mostly, to add to the bloated swell of turgid top 40 averageness.
03: Philmore Green - Knowledge and Power
Release date: 5th April 2021
This one was recommended to me by a Facebook friend (shouts to K Doom from Illinois). Boy, am I glad he shared this. What an album. I keep going on about “curated” music. That’s only because I’m from an era of the album. I realise a lot of music is single-driven these days but I much prefer to listen to a full album, by an artist who has spent the time to think about the vibe, tone, and feel of the project. You can normally tell if someone has grabbed random beats and just put them together, it can sound disjointed and scattergun. This is the exact opposite. This is high-level, music for the soul. I couldn’t give a fuck if that comes across as a tad corny, as I think we are devaluing great music these days, we just don’t give the music its due. If it’s high art, I’m gonna give the required praise. The album is full of rich, bass-heavy, soulful production. To my ears, Philmore Greene is cut from the cloth of icons. The Rakim’s, The Nas’, Common, Talib Kweli. He’s conscious without coming across preachy. He has a raw street edge to go along with his knowledgeable content. Everything you hear is meant to uplift, to warn, to “shoot game” if you will.
“Knowledge and power, live from the ghetto making it ours/I tell my bro I love him, before I give him his flowers”. Grown man business.
“Manage Money” is one of the many highlights. I ain’t gonna sit here as a white dude and try to pretend the track resonates with me further than the music, but I’ll harbor a guess that this is gonna hit black men, black people, right in the feels. It’s just so layered and poignant.
Production choices are perfect. Philmore Greene knows exactly what music he needs to use to accentuate his message. CURATION!
This, number 3 on my list, is one that is still my favourite album of the year on its day. You can almost swap any of the top 3 on any given day. Philmore Greene belongs at the top of all “best albums of” lists. There’s so much to digest that it will take multiple listens to even scratch the surface of this absolute masterpiece of an album.
02: Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Release date: 3rd September 2021
Little Simz is blowing up. What a follow-up to “GREY Area” this is. I don’t listen to any mainstream radio shows and I couldn’t name you a single track in the top 40. That’s no BS, old man badge of honour either, it’s just not my realm. So, because of that, I missed the Little Simz singles. I was snowed in by a lot of my own music, trying to get it over the line and ready for release, so I didn’t make much time to check anything new. One night, I had a long journey home and was scrolling through Facebook and noticed a few people saying how good the album was, so I thought “what better time to check out the album than on a commute?”. I love listening to albums on long journeys, I feel you can give it the attention it deserves. Plus, if it’s a scenic route, it always helps.
One track in, two tracks in, three tracks in. Zoning out. Four tracks in. This is a bit special, isn’t it?. It sounded familiar. Probably because I’d spent the best part of every hour of every day of this year listening to Sault. Familiarity was a factor because Inflo, the producer for Sault, handles the majority of the production on this album too. But, that is as far as the similarities go. I mean, you also have Cleo Sol featuring on the album but this is all about Little Simz.
This is a perfectly crafted album. I also love how it’s 19 tracks. There’s an absurd notion that anything over 7 tracks is overkill, perpetuated by media sorts who think that people’s attention spans can’t take in an album that has highs and lows, and, for want of a saying less cheesy, takes you on a journey. That is exactly what this album does. It’s almost like a play. The skits are there to fill in the gaps.
For an album so inherently personal, I feel that this is going to resonate and inspire so many people. “Little Q” is awe-inspiring. I had full-blown goosebumps when the track built up into a beautiful crescendo of gospel-inspired vocals. Oh man. It’s damn emotional.
“Speed” is gnarly. It shows Little Simz range. She can get aggy too. “I See You” is how you do a heartfelt track. It’s just so sweet and pure. “you saved my life, I’m hoping that I never wake up”. Too much beauty.
“Protect my Energy” is an absolute treat. A total change-up of vibe. It’s like they put Kano (Italo Disco Kano, not UK Kano), Fatback Band, and Chromeo in a blender and came up with this stomper. It’s almost like a fun, welcome breather. Where you can just vibe out and not get emotionally battered, in a good way, like a lot of the previous tracks.
“Point and Kill” and “Fear No Man” are tribal. Joyous. At this point, I’m looking at people on the commute, feeling sorry for them. Sorry that the ones with headphones on may just be listening to Ed Sheeran or something similarly horrific.
“How Did You Get Here” is a heartfelt track, Simz basically recalling the years spent dreaming about what she’s actually living today. Another track that’s so personal but will strike a chord with literally hundreds of thousands of artists worldwide. That is what makes this album so special. It’s the ability to transcend the artist's most personal feelings and inspire so many others.
As I said on the Philmore Greene album, this is one that frequently becomes my favourite of the year, but you know what? I don’t feel the need (even though I have numbered these albums) to give one definitive answer to the album of the year. They all co-exist comfortably in my headphones. For many, many years to come too.
01: Apollo Brown & Stalley - Blacklight
Release date: 19th November 2021
How Sway! How haven’t I heard of Stalley before? For someone who prides himself on keeping his ear to the ground in regards to top tier emcees/producers etc, I can’t believe this is my first introduction to the Ohio native. What an introduction too.
Now Apollo Brown I’ve heard of. He’s one of the producers that has that “quality seal of approval”. I see his name on a project? I’m getting it, without the need to hear a single track. AB always brings the soulful vibes but they are also hard hitting enough not to come across saccharine. Just purchase the album. Press play. Sit back and relax. You won’t need to flex a digit to skip.
The first and also title track is a good barometer of the rest of the album, but that’s no bad thing. At all. Don’t get me wrong, the album is definitely varied in sound, it’s just it has a certain vibe throughout, which works. The fresh flip of Tom Brock on “Love Me, Love Me Not” is butter smooth. “We Outside” has that 80’s synth feel that I adore.
Next up for me is "Breathe". I recently said that I’m so over the use of “Synthetic Substitution” in Hip-Hop productions but boy oh boy, this slams!. Another beat that has a lot of synth going on, it has such a dynamic sound. It’s another huge high point on the album and an early favourite. Apollo Brown’s production is continually levelling the fuck up. Also, one thing that struck me on this track is Stalley eerily resembles Nipsey Hussle when he kicks off his verse. (RIP Nipsey).
The rest of the album follows a similar quality level. High. Very high. Production is just so punchy and full sounding. “Stay Low” could bring you to tears. Seriously. This is just beautiful music. Stalley has absolutely nailed his part of the album too. An emcee that has taken me by surprise. Heartfelt and honest. As a listener, he almost welcomes you into his world, such is his soothing vocal tone. The clarity in his voice sits perfectly on every beat.
Apollo Brown’s collab choices (if it was him that set the ball rolling) are A1. This is a producer at the very top of his game. I hate throwing around the word classic for albums that are relatively new, but the sheer levels involved on this make it hard for me not to label it as such. I can’t praise this enough.
Album of the year.
There's so much great music out there, so I may have missed some top-notch stuff, but this is what resonated with me the most. I normally make clickable Smartlinks for any albums, but I'm sure if you like the sound of any of these, you won't have to look too hard to find them. For the Spotify heads among you, below is a link for my 2021 Spotify playlist, featuring a lot of the music that made my list, so if you dig any of the tracks, you can always just follow the clickable links within Spotify to further check out the albums they come from. Just click the pic, that'll take you to the playlist. Peace!
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