In music, it was another year of eat or be eaten. Artists continued to battle for the consumer’s attention, using all sorts of marketing popularised in 2020 to make it possible. While the trends of the previous year remained, the quality in music varied. Hip hop struggled to find a hit as big as “The Box”, taking its spotlight to the underground instead (Boldy James, Mach-Hommy). The UK scene had its fair share of standout songs, more within the R&B and pop realms than its rap scene however.
This year’s Best Songs list comes with a string of snubs (sorry, Olivia Rodrigo), and limits appearances by the same main artist to a maximum of three. Multiple genres across hip hop, R&B, pop and Afrobeats are included, as well as songs in other languages (because English isn’t the only language with fire songs, right fellow publications?).
Here are Mic Cheque’s fifty best songs of 2021.
First, some honourable mentions…
- Apollo Brown & Stalley, “The Realest”
- Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud, “When Tony Met Sosa”
- Cordae, “Super”
- Charlotte Day Wilson, “I Can Only Whisper”
- Headie One, “Nothing to Me”
- iSight, “Liberation”
- James Blake, “Show Me” (ft. Monica Martin)
- JVCK JAMES, “Joyride (ándale)”
- Nao, “Antidote” (ft. Adekunle Gold)
- Ransom & Rome Streetz, “Rooftop Sermons”
- Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open”
- Snoh Aalegra, “Lost You”
- Tems, “Replay”
- Tendai, “Not Around”
- Westside Gunn, “Why I Do Em Like That”
- Yef, “Take Me”
- Youngs Teflon, “Plato”
- Wiki, “All I Need” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt)
50. Mach-Hommy, “The Stellar Ray Theory”
Album: Pray for Haiti
The jazzy “Stellar Ray Theory” is a standout from Mach-Hommy’s breakout album, Pray for Haiti. Put this on and zone out to the comforting hook (“Shit hard when the rays don’t shine”).
49. Pooh Shiesty, “See Red”
Album: Shiesty Season
“Back in Blood” may have been the bigger song, but Pooh Shiesty’s “See Red” is equally as infectious with its unique guitar strum and Shiesty’s signature Southern slur.
48. PinkPantheress, “Break It Off”
Album: To Hell with It
You could pick any of the PinkPantheress songs that dominated 2021. But we’re going for “Break It Off” thanks to its whirring drum and bass beat and subtle melodies.
47. Capella Grey, “Gyalis”
“Gyalis” has you sold the second you hear that sample. Bronxville’s Capella Grey puts an R&B twist to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up”, crooning over a beat that never drops but justifying that decision.
46. Drake, “Wants and Needs” (ft. Lil Baby)
Album: Scary Hours 2
It is always Drake that leaves his best songs off his albums. “Wants and Needs” can hold its head high as one of the best Drake cuts for a while. But we all know it’s Lil Baby who really steals the show.
45. Fireboy DML, “Peru”
The lyrics may not make much sense, but “Peru” is a fire song regardless that rightfully took over the second half of the year.
44. Adele, “Easy on Me”
Adele’s comeback single perfectly channels her emotions to make you feel what she feels.
43. Le classico organisé, “Cœur de pirate”
Album: Le classico organisé
“Cœur de pirate” (English: Pirate’s Heart) is a track featuring an ensemble of French artists, including Naza, Tayc, Vegedream, Elams, Jul, Lynda and more. As one of the catchiest songs of the year, what “Cœur de pirate” shows is just how much melody the French have.
42. AJ Tracey, “Anxious”
Album: Flu Game
The lead single from AJ Tracey’s sophomore album delivers one of his best flows in a minute over an understated, ghoulish trap beat.
41. Japanese Breakfast, “Be Sweet”
Japanese Breakfast gave us the courtesy to hear the dreamy “Be Sweet”, one of the catchiest alt-pop songs of the year.
40. Freeze Corleone & Central Cee, “Polémique”
Our second song from the French scene is a superb drill track by Freeze Corleone and Central Cee, trading rapid flows and quotables between each other.
39. Paris Texas, “CASINO”
Album: Boy Anonymous
Alternative hip hop duo Paris Texas grant a song that gets you in a zone by knowing exactly what to do over production like this.
38. Tiggs Da Author, “Enough”
Album: Blame it on the Youts
The UK scene’s understated hero delivered a fire album, one of its many standouts which is the powerful and infectious “Enough”.
37. Pressa, “Attachments” (ft. Taliban Glizzy)
Album: Gardner Express
Released in December 2020, “Attachments” makes great use of Pressa’s unique voice and the half typical, half unorthodox ItsNell beat.
36. 42 Dugg & Roddy Ricch, “4 Da Gang”
Album: Free Dem Boyz
42 Dugg continues to show he is more than “We Paid” on this smash hit that samples Scorpions’ “No One Like You”. Everyone sing together: “Know I keep two flags on baaang / I just dropped a Urus for the gaaaang”.
35. CASISDEAD, “Park Assist” (ft. La Roux)
CASISDEAD is back, and he returns big with one of the best songs UK rap released this year; an ethereal electronic rap cut featuring La Roux.
34. Boldy James & The Alchemist, “Double Hockey Sticks”
Album: Bo Jackson
The intro to one of the best rap albums of the year. ”Double Hockey Sticks” features the darkest production you will find before being hit with The Alchemist’s expert beat switch.
33. Nas, “Rare”
Album: King’s Disease II
There are many highlights off Nas’s first album of 2021. But “Rare” is the most complete with its ever-changing production, hook and brag raps that are fully justified.
32. Blu, “Blu(e)r Than Blu(e)”
Album: The Color Blu(e)
Blu remains one of the most special rappers of the West Coast, and the soulful “Blu(e)r Than Blu(e)” shows exactly why.
31. Tyler, The Creator, “CORSO”
Album: Call Me If You Get Lost
Bombastic and brazen, “CORSO” explodes your speakers with its relentless energy.
30. C3llyPizzaz, “Make It Out” (with Knucks, Kai Ca$h & Joy Wrice)
Album: The Streets Are Nostalgicy
East London’s C3lly makes his mark with exactly the direction British hip hop should be aiming for.
29. The Alchemist, “Loose Change” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt)
Album: This Thing of Ours
The Alchemist and Earl Sweatshirt are a matchup that should certainly be explored more.
28. Skyzoo, “Free Jewelry”
Album: All the Brilliant Things
Skyzoo delivers one of the year’s best album openers while continuing his unbelievable consistency.
27. Nicki Minaj, Drake & Lil Wayne, “Seeing Green”
Album: Beam Me Up Scotty (Reissue)
The sample from that famous Twitter beat finally gets put to use on this superb Young Money reunion.
26. Vince Staples, “ARE YOU WITH THAT?”
Album: Vince Staples
Vince Staples showed this year that less is more, from tracks down to raps and beats. The paranoia of ”ARE YOU WITH THAT?” is transferable, a song that makes you look over your shoulder at every turn.
25. Amaarae & Moliy, “Sad Girlz Luv Money (Remix)” (ft. Kali Uchis)
Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but ”Sad Girlz Luv Money” is one of the catchiest songs of the year. Its remix with Kali Uchis takes it to the next level. From the naturally pitched vocals to the whispered bridge, this was the one to keep on replay this year.
24. Swedish House Mafia & The Weeknd, “Moth to a Flame”
2021 saw the return of Swedish House Mafia, and they returned big with “Moth to a Flame”. Those signature house synths haven’t been heard for years, which is why “Moth to a Flame” is a refreshing pop song. Coupled with an appropriate performance by The Weeknd, it was a collaboration to remember.
23. Joyce Wrice, “Losing”
From the killer “Baby you”s to the vintage production, “Losing” throws it back to the days of prime R&B.
22. Skore Beezy, “Beef with the Malis”
Of all the hits the UK rap scene had this year, Skore Beezy’s came out on top. “Beef with the Malis” is a drill banger that sent TikTok into a frenzy, serving as a double diss to Tottenham’s OFB crew while it smoothly blends English with Somali.
21. Kanye West, “Come to Life”
Emotion was necessary on Donda, amid the album title and Kanye’s hectic personal life. He achieves that on the magical “Come to Life”, one of the few tracks that is meticulously structured, all while being just one of three songs carried purely by West. This is Kanye West in peak form; the lyrics are focused, the production is progressive, and leaves a real mark on the listener (“Took your thoughts and penciled ’em in / Should’ve wrote ’em down in pen / And maybe they’ll come to life”).
20. Fredo, “Back to Basics”
Album: Money Can’t Buy Happiness
Fredo strips it all back on this one over a Dave-produced trap beat. Just like the title, this is a song that keeps it simple. The haunting production encourages Fredo to spit some of the best bars of his careers (“I believe in God, so you can say I’m kind of Christian / But going Hatton Garden every Sunday’s my religion”). Fredo commands your attention here, and it’s safe to say it is earned.
19. Big Sean & Hit-Boy, “What a Life”
Album: What You Expect EP
Hit-Boy provides the year’s loudest beat for Big Sean to glide on, offering his best rap performance in years.
18. Mereba, “Rider”
Album: AZEB EP
Mereba incorporates steel drums in a song that’s light as a feather. “Rider” shows a glimpse of a future star, excelling through its gentle hook and vocals.
17. Vince Staples, “SUNDOWN TOWN”
Album: Vince Staples
On “SUNDOWN TOWN”, Vince Staples paints a vivid picture of his environment, a two-and-a-half minute track where every line contributes to the mural (“Hanging on them corners same as hanging from a ceiling fan” being the cherry on top).
16. Kanye West & Andre 3000, “Life of the Party”
Album: Donda (Deluxe)
The song infamously leaked by Drake during the height of their beef made its way onto Donda, and we are thankful that it did. In what has become the crux of the album, “Life of the Party” is a moving piece that finds Kanye and André reflecting on the loss of their mothers. The song ends with audio of the late DMX riding a rollercoaster while comforting his daughter; perhaps the most tearjerking moment of it all.
15. Little Simz, “I Love You, I Hate You”
Album: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Parental trauma was a common theme for some artists this year. The song that unpacked it all the best was Little Simz’s “I Love You, I Hate You”, a song that explores the push-and-pull relationship with her estranged father, tugging with the indecision of her feelings (“My ego won’t fully allow me to say that I miss you / A woman who hasn’t confronted all her daddy issues”).
14. Potter Payper, “Johnny on the Spot”
Album: Thanks for Waiting
Potter Payper continues to lay passionate performances on “Johnny on the Spot”, backed up with evoking substance and dexterous rhymes that makes it one of the best rap songs out the UK this year.
13. Boldy James & The Alchemist, “Photographic Memories” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt)
Album: Bo Jackson
Underground wizards combine on another highlight off Boldy James and The Alchemist’s Bo Jackson. The sample lurks around your eardrums as Boldy, Earl and Marci dance across it, making for a magical rap track.
12. Griff, “Walk”
Album: One Foot in Front of the Other
“Black Hole” was the BRIT nominee’s hit, but “Walk” off the same project is more gripping, a motivational pop track featuring one of the year’s strongest hooks coupled with rhythmic production.
11. Joy Crookes, “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”
The distinction of Joy Crookes’s voice works the magic on her single “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”, a song inspired by the social events of 2020. Joy’s message here is clear: stand up for something and stick by it.
10. Curren$y & Harry Fraud, “Car Lot”
Harry Fraud outdoes himself with what may be the best sample of 2021. He combines with frequent collaborator Curren$y for “Car Lot”, a song that epitomises the best elements of hip hop.
9. Doja Cat, “Kiss Me More” (ft. SZA)
Album: Planet Her
Doja Cat delivers what may become a pop classic in the SZA-assisted “Kiss Me More”. Bubbly production combines with Doja Cat’s perfect hook and colorful personality.
8. Little Simz, “Woman” (ft. Cleo Sol)
Album: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
“Woman” is the smoothest song of 2021, and another highlight from her latest album that makes our cut. This was the ideal song for a #WomanChallenge, if there ever was to be one. Though it has “hit” written all over it, “Woman” maintains its artistic integrity while remaining insanely catchy.
7. Freddie Gibbs, “Big Boss Rabbit”
Nas’s “You’re da Man” is trapified on Gangsta Gibbs’s “Big Boss Rabbit”, barely taking a breath on this expertly rapped tune. Here, Freddie proves exactly why he is a top tier rapper of our generation, dropping impeccable flows and quotables that emit Gibbs’s usual confidence.
6. Cleo Sol, “Don’t Let Me Fall”
As mentioned, 2021 was the year for unpacking parental trauma. Cleo Sol offers her take on “Don’t Let Me Fall”, the beautiful album opener that addresses the disconnected relationship with her mother. What this song does the most is set up how different Cleo will behave with her own children, now that she is also a mother. Heart on her sleeve for us all to hear, this is one of the most bittersweet songs of the year.
5. Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar, “Family Ties”
Album: The Melodic Blue
The return of the prodigal son called for something special. “Family Ties” instantly set itself as a highlight of the year with its ambitious structure, charismatic performances, and simply just hearing Kendrick back. That’s not to take anything away from his cousin Baby Keem, who provides the balance that the song needs. In some ways, “Family Ties” is throwing ideas at the wall, except it all sticks. The song maintains a firm grip throughout its three portions that hasn’t been seen since 2018’s “Sicko Mode”. And the SpongeBob AI cover only made it better.
Take ”Family Ties” as a warning: Kendrick will be schmoking on your top five all throughout 2022.
4. Frenna, “Come Thru”
It may not have the notoriety, but Frenna’s “Come Thru” knows how to stand out from the crowd. It is a gem from the Dutch star’s album, Highest, mixing raps with serenading singing, taken to next heights by its bank of melodies. There is a part pop, part Afrobeats flair to the track, taken to its heights through the groovy saxophones, an addictive hook and irresistible flows on the verses. Playlist this one immediately.
3. Dave, “In the Fire” (ft. Fredo, Meekz, Ghetts & Giggs)
Album: We’re All Alone in This Together
It’s been a minute since the UK had a classic posse cut. Out comes “In the Fire”, a 7-minute showdown that ignites several flames. Featuring uncredited verses by Fredo, Meekz, Ghetts and Giggs, “In the Fire” brings urgent lyricism centred around the track’s soulful 80s sample. It effortlessly bridges the old school (Ghetts, Giggs) with the new school (Dave, Fredo, Meekz), with no guest offering a weak verse (we’ll let a few of Giggs’s questionable lines slide). The production is new territory for Dave, making it one of the most refreshing moments on his sophomore album.
Above all, “In the Fire” is empowering; a feel-good track that focuses on nothing but the art of rap.
2. Little Simz, “Introvert”
Album: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
The marching drums emerge. Then cue the horns. Next comes the choir vocals and the secondary horns. This is the start of Little Simz’s “Introvert”, the finest example of how to open an album. Contrary to the name, we find Simz at her boldest, its dexterous detail showcasing exactly how she took over the year. At its core, “Introvert” feels royal, like a supreme ruler making their entrance into the palace. Every note is orchestrated, selling its grandiosity to the listener with immense ease. With all this in mind plus its 6-minute runtime, “Introvert” sounds like a brave choice for your first single. But this is what mainstream music’s needed this year; a risk taker.
With “Introvert”, Little Simz set the new standard not just for UK rap, but hip hop worldwide. The bar has been raised, now it is up for fellow artists to take notes.
1. Kanye West, “Off the Grid” (ft. Fivio Foreign & Playboi Carti)
Drill’s been the zeitgeist genre for the last two years. It was only a matter of time before it made its way to Kanye West, an artist known for putting his spin on a myriad of genres. Enter “Off the Grid”, one of two-dozen songs that premiered at the Donda listening parties. And it made noise for all the right reasons. From the second you hear the ghoulish production, you are hooked in, ready to hear the best collaboration of 2021.
What’s the most satisfying part of “Off the Grid” is how everyone punches above their weight. Playboi Carti kicks things off with his juvenile, nasal intonation. His appearance is a precursor to the main event, but is necessary for the song to evolve. About 1 minute 10 seconds in, “Off the Grid” explodes into life. The skittering 808s enter the frame, followed by the ever-satisfying drill bass and slides that never gets old. Then Fivio Foreign goes off for two minutes straight, laying an incredible verse that no one knew he was capable of. But seriously, where has this Fivy been? He is rightfully the star of the song, staying true to the topic of God while laying quotable after quotable. The quotables never stop. West rivals the verse by following up with a well-oiled drill flow, finding the pocket with no trouble.
And when it’s all over, you play it again. And again, and again. “Off the Grid” is the banger 2021 needed, deserving the honour to split your speakers for years to come.
Listen to the Best Songs of 2021 playlist on Spotify: