Year after year, hip-hop continues to grow in variety and breadth of content and styles. We’ve long grown used to the melodic and trap-based offerings of the mainstream, but even those genres have kept pushing their boundaries, as has the underground, where adherents are burrowing down further and further into strange sounds and deconstructed rhythms to get their points across. Of course, with the increased variety and volume, it becomes more and more challenging to hit everything on a year-end list like this one. With that said, we believe these are the best representatives of that diversity, showing everything that hip-hop can be, should be, will be, and stubbornly remains in the face of massive cultural upheaval and growth.
Boldy James & The Alchemist — Bo Jackson
In much the same vein as his Griselda compatriots, Boldy stacks syllables like Jenga blocks, building precariously teetering constructs of assonant vowel sounds to the point you wonder how the whole thing supports its weight. But it does, and Boldy sticks the landing as well as most — perhaps even better — delivering whirlwind tours of trap houses and Detroit city blocks in which he did dirt and learned to survive. On Bo Jackson, he pairs once again with The Alchemist, whose elaborate production offers a smooth-playing counterpoint to the grit of Boldy’s street tales. While many of both artists’ frequent collaborators (Earl Sweatshirt, Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs) pop up throughout, the focus remains fixed on Boldy’s dazzling displays of verbal acrobatics. – Aaron Williams
D Smoke — War & Wonders
The follow-up to D Smoke’s excellent 2020 debut, Black Habits, is far less insular and self-centered; whereas its predecessor focused on telling the story of the Inglewood native’s family and upbringing, War & Wonders is instead concerned with the impact D Smoke looks to have on the world around him. He warns of the dangers of gang life on “Crossover,” admonishes listeners to make the most of their opportunities on “Stay True,” and sets lofty goals on “Better Half.” Employing hard-hitting production and a percussive vocal delivery to make his points, each word lands like a blow on the heavy bag at the boxing gym he recently opened in his hometown. – A.W.
DDG — Die 4 Respect
DDG’s 2021 mixtape Die 4 Respect with the Grammy Award-nominated producer OG Parker of Quality Control is everything the project’s title implies. “I really feel passionate about it to the point where I’d die about this shit like you gonna respect me at the end of this,” the Pontiac, Michigan raised artist told us earlier this year in reference to his transition from being a bonafide YouTube star to a full-fledged artist. In turn, DDG saw several hits off Die 4 Respect. Among them is the platinum-selling hit “Moonwalking In Calabasas” featuring Blueface, “Impatient” featuring Coi Leray, and “Money Long” with 42 Dugg. His heartfelt opener, “Hood Melody” with Youngboy Never Broke Again, tells the story of how he lost his brother to gun violence and is a true display of his abilities as a lyrical storyteller. OG Parker and our July 2021 cover star came through with a project that was both cohesive and offered music that was clearly set out to prove the mixtape’s Die 4 Respect title. – Cherise Johnson
Don Toliver — Life Of A Don
Don Toliver’s Life Of A Don deserves to be played in its entirety starting from the project’s glowing opener “Xscape” to its buoyant closer “Bogus.” Though the loving “What You Need” and “Drugs N Hella Melodies” were the album’s supporting singles, even more desirable songs await for anyone who takes a dive into the full collection of 16. If you have never been to Houston before, “Double Standards” takes you right to the center of the city and its follow-up “Swangin On Westheimer” keeps you there. It’s one of the most beautiful transitions that serenely introduces a side of the H that is palpable for anyone who has never been. “Outerspace” featuring Baby Keem is another standout track off Life Of A Don (more Don and Keem collabs please) and “You” with Travis Scott is a sleeper for sure. H-Town OG Mike Dean’s presence is all over this as well as help from Hit-Boy, Sonny Digital, Mustard and Metro Boomin — yet it all still sounds like it came from the same planet. Donny is devotedly opening a new paradigm for melodic rap and what it means to be an artist with Life Of A Don, it’s just up for the rest of the world to catch up. – C.J.
Guapdad 4000 & Illmind — 1176
There were many, many projects that were bigger than Guapdad’s collaborative effort with Illmind this year. None of them were as personal, as vulnerable, or as real as 1176, which is all of the things hip-hop is supposed to be. As he exorcises his demons, Guapdad showcases his storytelling skills (“Uncle Ricky”), his devilish sense of humor (“She Wanna”), tender regard for his Filipino roots (“Chicken Adobo“), and a gift for personal exegesis (“Stoop Kid”), all while Illmind stretches his sonic palette in unexpected ways (the Alice Deejay flip on “How Many” is a favorite). Guapdad 4000 may be known as a scammer but in 1176, he’s as authentic as it gets. – A.W.
Huey Briss — Grace Park Legend
If Vince Staples holds an arm’s length disdain/acceptance of his tormented past in Long Beach, Huey Briss‘ sophomore effort is like a reporter standing in a hurricane, describing the events happening around him. Detailing his harrowing hood narratives with an unrattled placidity, there is a sense that, unlike his fellow citizen, Briss hasn’t quite lost hope — or maybe that he’s found the same sort of sardonic fatalism with a slightly more upbeat sense of humor. Entirely produced by Nikobeats (the son of the legendary DJ Babu of Dilated Peoples fame), the Grace Park marries smooth backpack beats with Huey’s densely-packed witticisms for a project that rides from beginning to end. – A.W.
IDK — USee4Yourself
For IDK, following up his excellent debut album, the existentially inquisitive Is He Real?, presented something of a challenge. After all, once you’ve set the bar that high, it’s hard to clear it — and even if you do, there will be plenty of naysayers who will almost certainly dispute the results. However, in not succumbing to the pressure to cater to those naysayers by sticking to emotionally and sonically safe material, IDK manages to not only clear the bar he set but raise it as well. Eclectic and wide-ranging both conceptually and musically, IDK bares his flaws, insecurities, and epiphanies with rare panache. – A.W.
Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning
If you’re going to take a damn-near five-year hiatus between albums to get your life right, your return project has to justify that wait for ravenous (and fickle) fans, or you may as well have retired. Fortunately for the TDE hotshot, his comeback feels every bit as electric as his debut. It’s more weathered and in some places, he sounds weary (“Darkseid,” “THIB“), but he also sounds revitalized and recentered (“From The Garden,” “Wat U Sed“), issuing hard-won observations and heavy-hearted moments of clarity. – A.W.
J. Cole — The Off-Season
J. Cole has received a lot of flak over the years for a lot of reasons, but one thing no one can take away from him: The boy can rap his all-American ass off. By restricting the aims of his latest album to simply proving that, he accomplished the unlikely goal of turning all the “J. Cole is boring” doubters into believers. That makes The Off-Season a triumph, a testament to the benefits of hard work, practice, and stubborn dedication. – A.W.
Lakeyah & DJ Drama — My Time: Gangsta Grillz Special Edition
The second Gangsta Grillz tape produced by DJ Drama in the span of a year (the first being Tyler The Creator’s also-excellent album, Call Me If You Get Lost, which you’ll find further down this list), this one has the special distinction of being one of the very few granted to a female rapper. Given hip-hop’s regrettable relationship to the female gender and Drama’s well-earned reputation, you can rest assured of at least one fact: Lakeyah is a rapper’s rapper. The Milwaukee native followed up her impressive showing in the rollout of XXL’s 2021 Freshman Class with this tape, which is a strategy that must certainly pay dividends with her rap credibility as she works her way up the Quality Control priority list. – A.W.
Lil Baby & Lil Durk — Voice Of The Heroes
Each year, some corner of the music world grants us collaborative projects between artists who were able to fine-tune their chemistry for a full-length project. In 2021, that came about through Lil Baby and Lil Durk’s Voice Of The Heroes. The project came through the rappers’, and their respective fan bases, realization that their vision and artistry fell in line enough for a full body of work. Propelled by highlights like “2040” and “That’s Facts,” Durk and Baby delivered on expectations for the project that flaunts what two of today’s best hip-hop acts have to offer. – Wongo Okon
Lil Nas X — Montero
The quintessential pop star for 2021, Lil Nas X’s Montero is the ultimate wink and a smile to anyone who doubted him as an industry one-hit-wonder. On “Dead Right Now,” he sings: “Left school, then my dad and I had a face-to-face in Atlanta / He said, ‘It’s one in a million chance, son,’ I told him, ‘Daddy, I am that one.’” It’s pensive moments like this tucked within an album of tongue-in-cheek mega-hits like “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” that flash true dynamic artistry across pop and hip-hop. When the dust settles, this will go down as the year of Lil Nas X, after all, who else can claim that they gave Satan a lap-dance, had a track with Elton John on their album (“One Of Me”), and was named The Trevor Project’s Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year? – Adrian Spinelli
Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Talk about a breakthrough album. London’s Little Simz emerged as one of the best newly established voices in hip-hop on the Inflo-produced Sometimes I Am Introvert. She tackles the album in complete fashion, showing that no subject is too difficult for her to master as a songwriter. She extols the mind and presence of Black women on “Woman,” flaunts her panache with fellow British-Nigerian Obongjayar on “Point And Kill,” and unapologetically opens up about the toll her relationship with her estranged father has taken on her in “I Love You, I Hate You.” In the latter, she rises above the pain, emerging triumphantly as a person and an artist, flawlessly sliding in between every note of the beat and leaving a lasting mark in the process. – A.S.
Lute — Gold Mouf
For those artists who are fortunate enough to be signed to more established artists’ labels, as Lute is on J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint, life can be something of a struggle to stand out enough to earn fans’ approval separate from their benefactors. Fortunately for Lute, he does enough well on Gold Mouf to prove he deserves to be seen every bit as much as his label peers (JID, Earthgang, Bas). Executive produced and sequenced by Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte Coleman of Little Brother, respectively, the album is an emotive experience that recounts Lute’s relatable insecurities, anxieties, and victories. – A.W.
Mach-Hommy — Pray For Haiti
Rapping like a waterfall over deconstructed samples and muted drums, Mach-Hommy has found a niche over the past few years — the same niche occupied by contemporaries such as Griselda Records rappers Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher, as well as longtime New York underground stalwarts like Roc Marciano. Incidentally, it was in linking up with the Griselda gang that Mach-Hommy’s profile shot up, and Westside Gunn executive produces here, once again demonstrating his gift for pairing bar-heavy rappers with just the right production and collaborators to best offset their crowded writing with the contrast that only a drum-less jazz sample can provide. – A.W.
Moneybagg Yo — A Gangsta’s Pain
Moneybagg Yo’s hustle over the decade paid off in the highest form in 2021. The Memphis rapper’s fourth album A Gangsta’s Pain grew to be his most successful project to date as it spent multiple weeks atop the album charts. The success behind this project can be credited to a well-orchestrated blend. A hit single (“Wokesha”), highlight guest appearances from Future, Jhene Aiko, Lil Durk and more, as well as a story to tell proved to be the perfect concoction for Moneybagg’s latest project. Best of all, he was able to avoid sounding repetitive on A Gangsta’s Pain, an underrated quality that helped boost the album’s overall experience. – W.O.
Playboi Carti — Whole Lotta Red
For many Playboi Carti fans, the wait for Whole Lotta Red was a grueling one. However, to their delight, the project arrived beside their holiday presents on Christmas in 2020. Carti’s entire brand is unharnessed energy, and while Whole Lotta Red attempts to reel in that that energy, unintentional room for that to thrive appears in various pockets of the album. Through 24 songs and contributions from Ye, Future, and Kid Cudi, Whole Lotta Red adds another chapter to Carti’s thrilling story as one of hip-hop’s biggest rockstars. – W.O.
Polo G — Hall Of Fame
With every project that Chicago rapper Polo G releases, his stock in the rap game increases. His debut Die A Legend made him a young name in hip-hop worth paying attention to. His sophomore effort The GOAT solidified his presence in music for years to come. Now, his third album Hall Of Fame presents a rapper who can stick to his roots and present himself as a top-selling rap product. Through 20 songs, Polo G not only shows that his pen has improved but also his awareness towards records that will pop and bring a bigger spotlight to him. – W.O.
Rico Nasty — Nightmare Vacation
When Rico Nasty first roared onto the SoundCloud rap scene in 2016, her rawness was part of the appeal. Now, five years, seven mixtapes, and a debut studio album later, she’s one of mainstream hip-hop’s most interesting figures, as much — more — of an innovator than any of her punk-rock-influenced peers. On Nightmare Vacation, she justifies every ounce of hype while utilizing every tool on her belt. There are her signature yell-rap anthems (“STFU,” “Smack A Bitch Remix”), hyperpop experiments (“iPhone”), and dreamy trap bangers (“Don’t Like Me”), all utterly saturated in her uniquely rebellious spirit. – A.W.
Skyzoo — All The Brilliant Things
Being independent in the rap game is both a supreme gift and a withering curse. Take, for instance, Skyzoo’s latest album. Untethered to the limits of the major-label system, Sky was able to craft one of the most inspiring and intricately-constructed rap albums of the year. However, without those major-label resources, it went largely overlooked — which is a shame, because there were few projects this year as consistently… well, brilliant as this one, on which tracks like “I Was Supposed To Be A Trap Rapper” turn staid hip-hop tropes on their ears and “Bodega Flowers” implores us all to salute our greats before they’re pushing up daisies. Well, salute, Skyzoo, one of the best out today. – A.W.
Topaz Jones — Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma
It’s not every day that one of the best albums of the year also picks up a short film jury award for non-fiction at Sundance Film Festival but that’s what Topaz’s latest managed at the top of the year. A stunningly executed concept album in its own right, Don’t Go Tellin’ is an incredible rap genealogy project, following the Montclair, New Jersey native as he explores his family’s history, then shares it with the world. Awash in the influences of funk mainstays such as Sly And The Family Stone, peppered with jazz intonations and marked by Jones’ deft recollections, Don’t Go Tellin’ shows what a refined version of the artform can look like when crafted with care. – A.W.
Tyler The Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost
Pound for pound, one of the most impressive studio releases of the year, Call Me If You Get Lost finds rebellious Tyler taking a nostalgic step back to redeem the blog era credit from which he was either barred or that he himself spurned (depending on which version of him you ask). Tapping mixtape maestro DJ Drama and emblazoning his latest with the Gangsta Grillz label is deceptive, though; as much as he revels in the sheer art of rhyme (“Lumberjack,” “Juggernaut“), he also finally gets more vulnerable and expansive than he’s ever been (“Massa,” “Manifesto”), pushing the series beyond mere mixtapes into something richer and much more vital. – A.W.
Vince Staples — Vince Staples
Call me biased (Long Beach, stand up), but I don’t think a single rap project this year came close to touching Vince Staples’ eponymous fourth studio album. Clocking in at just ten tracks — as many of the great albums do — Vince’s new approach strips away bells, whistles, and several layers of anything resembling varnish to expose the gritty truths he bares throughout its harrowing narratives. Trading in his frantic yelps for a laconic, resigned incantation, Vince invites listeners to not just watch the movie but inhabit his point of view. If you don’t get it, that’s on you. – A.W.
Wale — Folarin 2
For years, Wale has not only believed his own hype but also been its main proponent. While he’s never exactly labored in obscurity, he’s unfortunately been regarded as something less than what he actually is by hip-hop fans at large, which is one of the best bar-for-bar rappers the game has ever seen. He came by that assessment honestly too, via a deep, abiding, and near-obsessive love for the art form. Here, he displays that love, culling samples from across the breadth of the genre (Q-Tip on “Poke It Out“). As a result, it looks like that love is finally being reciprocated as fans learn to appreciate just what he brings to the game. – A.W.
Young Thug — Punk
Young Thug’s career is filled with individual eras. There are the rapper’s red-haired and blonde eras as well as that for Slime Season and Jeffery. Thug’s second album Punk issues another chapter for the rapper’s extremely unique career. Falling on the opposite side of the spectrum from his debut So Much Fun, Punk finds Thug going against the grain of his own career and the expectations of his fans. Vulnerability, honesty, and a story to tell all stand at the forefront of Punk. However, just like Thug’s previous projects, it serves as another example of the rapper doing what he wants. – W.O.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.