2021 was the year of aftermath. As the world gradually recovered from lockdowns, the music industry attained some sort of normality. No more side-projects to hold off fans; the real deals were back. For hip hop, it was a collaborative year that saw it continue to be the driving genre in the mainstream. The UK finally began to assert its power in hip hop on a global scale, granting some of the most noteworthy releases of the year. The Griselda goons continued to stay busy, putting out more projects than this list combined. And in other respects, some artists chose to stay out of the spotlight.
With an abundance of material to take heed of, a handful of albums managed to stick come the end of the year. These are the albums the Mic Cheque team found the most striking, enjoyable and memorable of 2021.
20. Dave, We’re All Alone in This Together
Dave’s sophomore album refines his existing templates, solidifying the pull the South London rapper has on the entire nation. We’re All Alone in This Together doubles down in Dave’s strength to tell a tale, rowing the boat on the cover art to numerous pitstops, quite literally following the stream of consciousness to bottle bars of heritage, broken relationships and who defined his upbringing. Forever gripping in his trials and tribulations, it’s safe to say the Rolexes are rightfully earned.
Best tracks: “In the Fire”, “Both Sides of a Smile”, “Heart Attack”, “Verdansk”
19. Navy Blue, Navy’s Reprise
The 24-year-old Navy Blue is a man of many trades. Rapper, producer, skater and visionary are a few titles in his repertoire. Initially starting off as an Earl Sweatshirt affiliate, Navy Blue’s carved a path of his own this year, particularly through his album Navy’s Reprise. He trudges through pensive thoughts over some of the best hip hop production of 2021, a clear student of the game in the way he raps with subtle, vintage touches.
Best tracks: “Peach Cobbler”, “Code of Honour”, “HGTV”, “Light”, “Ritual”
18. Mach-Hommy, Pray for Haiti
From the moment that Mach-Hommy and Westside Gunn linked back together again, fans were optimistic of how the two would sound on record again. Needless to say, Mach and West provided a marvelous body of work that perfectly displays Mach-Hommy to the world. From the title displaying his Haitian roots to the records properly capturing Mach’s eccentric style, Pray for Haiti is a perfect representation of Mach-Hommy as an artist. A listen is definitely recommended as 20% of proceeds from the album will go to the Pray for Haiti Trust Fund.
Best tracks: “The Stellar Ray Theory”, “Au Revoir”, “Makrel Jaxson”, “No Blood No Sweat”
17. Stalley & Apollo Brown, Blacklight
Stalley & Apollo Brown’s Blacklight provides listeners a crash course on the musical and cultural landscape of the Midwest, from past and present. It is a gripping record that draws inspiration from the struggles every artist endures when they experience success. The soul-infused, bass-heavy project covers all stages in the entertainment industry’s circle of life with each track. From celebrating every victory on the triumphant “Humble Wins” to weeding out unnecessary associates on the passionate “Love Me, Love Me Not”, Stalley pours his pain & pleasure in creating a cohesive body of work that resonates universally, regardless of the situation.
Best tracks: “Breathe”, “Blacklight”, “No Monsters”, “Love Me, Love Me Not”, “Humble Wins”, “We Outside”
16. Skyzoo, All the Brilliant Things
Brooklyn’s Skyzoo is now a rap veteran at this point. His tenth album shows that sometimes, skill never dies. On All the Brilliant Things, Skyzoo nails a passionate and witty performance. Normally, the subject matter on most Skyzoo projects concerns the topic of gentrification of different neighborhoods throughout the New York boroughs. As the cultural war for New York proceeds, the more time Skyzoo finds to shed light on the situation. Whether it be explaining the suburbanization of the hood or expressing the importance of cultural authenticity, Skyzoo delves straight into the topic head-on and hits the nail on each individual track.
Best tracks: “Free Jewelry”, “Bodega Flowers”, “Bed-Stuy is Burning”, “Something to Believe In”
15. Blu, The Color Blu(e)
The consistency of Blu remains an enigma. On The Color Blu(e), the West Coast rapper explores metaphors around his stage name for eleven tracks straight. His creativity towards the concept is admirable, always maintaining the sharp ear for production and never laying down a weak verse. Get past the confusing titles and The Color Blu(e) marks another stellar album by an unsung hero of hip hop.
Best tracks: “Blu(e)r Than Blu”, “Because the Sky is Blu(e)”
14. Kanye West, DONDA
For the record, Kanye West’s Donda remains massively unsequenced. But individually, its songs have lived up to their status. This creates a dichotomy for the listener, because at two hours in length, DONDA is not an album you will return to from start to finish. Yet songs like “Hurricane”, “Off the Grid”, “Come to Life”, “Moon”, “Life of the Party” and more rival the best songs from albums like The Life of Pablo. It is an anomaly of a release, one that’s encouraged fans to experiment with the makeup of the album through the DONDA stem player.
Donda does not know when to take a breath. And somehow, the product is West’s best album since Yeezus, tugging on straws of true gems and ones that fall short of his full abilities.
Best tracks: “Off the Grid”, “Life of the Party”, “Come to Life”, “Jail”
13. Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud, The Plugs I Met 2
The sequel to the cult coke rap classic extends the Griselda rapper’s echelon, sticking to his thesis while evolving sonically. Whereas the first The Plugs I Met was grittier in terms of production, the sequel feels more lush and luxuriant. This contrast makes sequel is an equally tasteful offering. This time, production duties are handled solely by Harry Fraud, who knows exactly how to compliment Benny’s coke memoirs. Songs like “When Tony Met Sosa” could have fit comfortably onto the predecessor, while songs like “Survivor’s Remorse” call for welcoming change in tone. Though it had a lot to live up to, The Plugs I Met 2 is bound to age gracefully.
Best tracks: “When Tony Met Sosa”, “Overall”, “Thanksgiving”
12. Ransom & Rome Streetz, Coupe de Grace
Coupe de Grace is a hip hop’s fan’s holy grail. A tight eleven-track collab between Ransom and Rome Streetz, the duo stray relentless bars over production that knocks equally as hard. It is also a non-stop lyrical showdown, with tracks like “Rooftop Sermons” showcasing the pinnacle of their pens. This project is more than just any collaboration; it is the resurgence of street rap in its most unfiltered form, raising the bar for others trying to fit in the sub-genre.
Best tracks: “Claudine”, “Silent Murderers”, “Rooftop Sermons”, “Jet Fuel”, “Dark Love”
11. Lord Apex, Smoke Sessions 3
London’s Lord Apex continues to bubble over the underground. The space he occupies is one that is undervalued in the UK scene; the essence of boom bap through and through. Smoke Sessions 3 establishes him as the leading force in the alternative rap scene. From dusty tracks like “Ssv3” or “Speak for Yourself” or the colourful collaboration with Smoke DZA, Smoke Sessions 3 shows exactly where your attention should be next year.
Best tracks: “On My Way”, “Rise Up”, “Ssv3”, “I Need a Light”, “Speak for Yourself”
10. Charlotte Day Wilson, ALPHA
After years of collaborations and short projects, Canadian singer-songwriter Charlotte Day Wilson finally released her debut album. At ten tracks, Alpha is a gentle, ethereal listen, carried to its heights by the soulful vocals of Charlotte. “Strangers” and “Adam’s Complex” is CDW at her most transparent, leaking emotion that connects immediately with the listener. Singles “If I Could” and “I Can Only Whisper” set themselves apart as real highlights, while “Mountains” may be familiar to rap fans from its sampling in Drake’s “Fair Trade”. With touches as light as a feather, Alpha is precisely in the line of heart-to-heart music.
Best tracks: “If I Could”, “Strangers”, “I Can Only Whisper”, “Mountains”
9. Tiggs Da Author, Blame it on the Youts
Despite being one of the most popular feature artists of the scene, Tiggs Da Author’s debut album flew unfairly under the radar. Blame it on the Youts is feel-good revolution music, consistently uplifting you through organic production and massive hooks. In many respects, Blame it on the Youts is about fending for yourself, and a reflection of Tiggs’s upbringing in Tanzania. It is a record that sounds genuine and grateful for life, taking you through its various influences of gospel (“Suitcase of Sins”), funk (“We Ain’t Sacred”) and Motown. Blame it on the Youts goes around the world in 35 minutes, rich in its embracement of culture and desire to create memorable music.
Best tracks: “Enough”, “We Ain’t Scared”, “Blame it on the Youts”, “Suitcase of Sins”
8. Joyce Wrice, Overgrown
Jazmine Sullivan, Summer Walker and Brent Faiyaz may have had more spotlight – but no R&B release this year comes close to Joyce Wrice’s. Luscious and realistic, Overgrown brings back 2000s R&B with ease, throwing it back while keeping the sound fresh. Her melodies sit snug in the targeted pocket (all without the need for trap drums and 808s and calling it “R&B”). Songs like “Losing” and “So So Sick” transport you back to the days of Mariah Carey and co, furthering that influence by bringing back R&B-rap collaborations (“On One”, “Westside Gunn’s Interlude”). Overgrown is no gimmick; it really could have been released in ’04 and carried classic status.
Best tracks: “Losing”, “Falling In Love”, “On One”, “Chandler”, “So So Sick”
7. Nas, King’s Disease 2
Forever catching up with the times, Nas has finally found focus on how to blend eras. He may not say it, but Nas is conscious of proving the doubters wrong. With Hit-Boy under his wing, Nas proves he does not need the beseeched DJ Premier or Pete Rock-produced albums to make a mark (even though we would still dearly want those). Just like its predecessor, King’s Disease II follows the thoughts of a man who’s nurtured a privileged position of kicking back in his chair, wine glass in hand, observing and reflecting as a rap historian. “I been on fire four generations”, he says on album intro “The Pressure”, words of affirmation that are backed up by the strength of KD2.
Best tracks: “Rare”, “Nobody”, “Composure”, “Store Run”, “Death Row East”
6. Joy Crookes, Skin
Identity carries a lot of weight in music. As a British, Irish and Bangladeshi woman living in London, Joy Crookes had a lot to unpack on her debut album, Skin. With production handled by Blue May (Kano, Blood Orange), Skin bravely weaves through rich instrumentation ranging from blues, jazz and soul. Skin is careful but focused in delivering a classical sound without being dated. The style works well with Crookes’s vocals, created exactly for the production she finds herself on. But the substance is there to match; “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” is 2021’s anthem for perseverance; “Kingdom” is a sociopolitical observation of the UK through the lens of youth; or the tender titular ballad that is the crux of the album’s message. With every touch, Skin consolidates Joy Crookes as a worthwhile artist.
Best tracks: “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”, “Trouble”, “Poison”, “19th Floor”, “Skin”
5. Tyler, The Creator, Call Me if You Get Lost
The classic “This new album sounds like [insert artist’s nostalgic album here]” fan statement gets thrown around a lot, especially with Tyler, The Creator. However, Call Me If You Get Lost fits this trope to a tee. With no glaring lows in sight, Call Me If You Get Lost is one of Tyler, The Creator’s strongest records to date – right at the apex of his discography alongside Flower Boy. On Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler is constantly in your face, rightfully banging his chest to applaud his riches and success, all while justifying it through incredible self-made talent.
The constant reference to a boat in Geneva is the exact picture the music reps, and the listener is right in the thick of it. If Tyler, The Creator really is a late bloomer, he is living proof that unlocking your potential is always better late than never.
Best tracks: “CORSO”, “HOT WIND BLOWS”, “LUMBERJACK”, “LEMONHEAD”, “WUSYANAME”
4. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
This year, Little Simz conquered not just her home country, but hip hop scenes worldwide. With its rich production, sharp songwriting and ambitious themes, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert set itself as the strongest UK rap record of 2021. It is part novella, part Disney musical, tied in matrimony through Simz’s higher vision to comfortably put mainstream rap albums to shame. There is nurtured care in the arrangements, verses, interludes and subject matter, an immediate feel that every track has been fed and cuddled.
Above all, it is Simz’s quest to find her best self that is the most gripping part of the record, constantly questioning and seeking answers. If there was ever a textbook blueprint on how to make an album, SIMBI would be an impeccable contender.
Best tracks: “Introvert”, “Woman”, “I Love You, I Hate You”, “Standing Ovation”
3. Vince Staples, Vince Staples
From Vince’s past music, we know he has lived through some horrors. Though this has never quite hit home like it does on his 2021 self-titled album. Vince Staples serves 22 minutes of biographic snapshots, magnifying the rapper’s trauma and paranoia through the power of minimalism. Its muted colour works to its advantage. From start to finish, Vince Staples sounds grey. Lifeless even. It’s no wonder that death is a central theme of the album. There is a constant sense of paranoia where Vince is always looking over his shoulder, wary of his life being taken at any second just like his homies.
It is a bleak listen, but what Vince Staples shows is that you do not need colour to paint a picture.
Best tracks: “SUNDOWN TOWN”, “ARE YOU WITH THAT?”, “TAKE ME HOME”
2. Cleo Sol, Mother
Sometimes exploring the beauty of life is enough for an album to do the trick. For Cleo Sol, she explored the creation of life on her second album, Mother. Becoming a mum earlier this year spawned the inspiration for these therapeutic collection of songs, wrapped in a bow for the rest of us to enjoy. Produced by long-time collaborator Inflo (Little Simz, Adele, SAULT), Mother is nothing but ballads of beauty, nearly all of which are dedicated to her child. Many tracks are like lullabies, authentic in their ability to evoke the same emotion Cleo is feeling. But some unpack Cleo’s relationship with her own mother, diving into the trauma on album opener “Don’t Let Me Fall” (“Keep fighting the world, that’s how you get love, mama / Your bitter tongue is sharper than a knife / Cut so deep inside”). Moments like these are brutally beautiful.
There is much more narrative here than we’ll ever understand. Cleo Sol is an elusive artist, releasing her music without warning or explanation (we still don’t know the names of the hidden tracks). But what we can take from the record is still plenty. She feels at home and filled with love that radiates with every note sung.
Best tracks: “Don’t Let Me Fall”, “Promises”, “Sunshine”, “Heart Full of Love”
1. Boldy James & The Alchemist, Bo Jackson
2021 was the year of the underground. When the mainstream lacked with their big releases, the rest of the hip hop scene delivered with their art. Long-time collaborators Boldy James (of Griselda) and producer The Alchemist (of, well, everything) renewed their matrimony for Bo Jackson, a thrilling rigmarole of coke tales and memoirs. Each track embarks on vividly bringing Boldy James’s tales to life, with assistance from features like Freddie Gibbs, Benny the Butcher, Earl Sweatshirt, Roc Marciano, Stove God Cooks and Curren$y, all of which are in the finest form.
Each co-star displays exactly why they took over the year. Boldy James’s deadpan delivery works better than ever, showing an emotionless man with no regrets. For Boldy, it’s all about moving these keys. And we buy into it. We are immersed into his world of drugs and gang wars, so close to the action we may as well be his partner in crime. Tracks like “Speed Trap” and “Illegal Search & Seizure” are like motion pictures flicking through a film strip of crime scene snapshots. It’s a hell of a ride to witness.
The Alchemist had his hand in various projects this year, but Bo Jackson outshines them all. He matches the grit of Boldy James with every note (“Brickmile to Montana”), while allowing enough room to shift the template here and there (“Illegal Search & Seizure”). These are some of the best beats Al’s ever produced. It’s no wonder his chemistry with Boldy James is as tough as the crack Boldy raps about.
The proof is on the stove: Boldy James and The Alchemist are the best duo in hip hop right now. And Bo Jackson is Album of the Year.
Best tracks: “Photographic Memories”, “Double Hockey Sticks”, “Brickmile to Montana”, “Speed Trap”, “Illegal Search & Seizure”, “Fake Flowers”