2021 was another rough COVID year with most new music missing my favourite aspect of experiencing it: seeing the songs get performed live. I almost didn’t write this article since there weren’t a lot of the new albums from last year really made a meaningful impact on me, but that’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of dope new music released. With my head focused on old-school classics and trying to build up my wedding playlist, there weren’t many albums this year pulling my attention away for more than a couple weeks at a time. That being said though, to quote the great Cam’ron: “who am I to fuck tradition up?”
As always, here’s my take on the best Hip-Hop albums from last year, even if I may not have given all of them the attention they deserve. Hopefully I can get back to reviewing concerts in the summer.
Big Boi & Sleepy Brown – Big Sleepover
Boldy James & The Alchemist – Super Tecmo Bo
Flee Lord & Roc Marciano – Delgado
Grip – I Died For This!?
¡Mayday! – Minute To Midnight
Nas – King’s Disease II
Shad – TAO
Tech N9ne – ASIN9NE
Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Your Old Droog – Time
10. Lloyd Banks – The Course Of The Inevitable
This easily has to be the biggest comeback album of the year. We heard a hint of his rejuvenation when Lloyd Banks featured on Conway The Machine’s From King To A GOD album in 2020, and now that the Griselda sound is dominating the underground, the timing was right for Banks to drop his first album in over a decade. I don’t think we’ve heard Lloyd Banks this hungry to kill every single verse since he rolled out the release of his debut album The Hunger For More in 2004. Today’s modern underground sound seems to have re-inspired him to come back to rap, and honestly this is the sound and style that G-Unit should have been using in the mid-2000’s. Of course Banks has to get some of the dope modern emcees to spit with him so he can show he’s still up to par, recruiting features from Freddie Gibbs, Benny The Butcher, Ransom and Roc Marciano, but he also has a ton of solo tracks, stretching the length of the album out to over an hour. The length of the album may be the only thing bringing it down, but there is no shortage of material to show that Lloyd Banks has still got it.
9. J. Cole – The Off-Season
“Sometimes you gotta do it at the level that you do it so that they know that you can do it at that level”… or whatever he said on the end of “Applying Pressure.” While J. Cole’s appeal in recent years has been his songwriting ability and the emotional factor in his music, this album has him moving away from the traditional song structures and being more focused on just rapping, aiming to out-rap the competition. He’s back to spitting punchlines and showing off some sharpened rhyme patterns with clever wordplay, even having songs with no hooks and just extra long verses. The approach puts the spotlight back on the bars more than the emotional appeal he’s had in the past, and the result is an entertaining album that bumped during the summer. If we limit our scope to just the handful of artists with mainstream appeal that the Grammys are back to putting their spotlight on, then it’s safe to say J. Cole was on top of the competition last year and is ready to win his first Grammy award in 2022.
8. Boldy James & The Alchemist – Bo Jackson
You have to be doing something right to have multiple albums produced by The Alchemist. Bo Jackson is the first of two albums this duo would release together in 2021, and was my first time experiencing any of Boldy James’ music. The dude has a dope cadence, with a voice that cuts through these beats easily, and Alchemist is able to pick out the perfect samples to loop that fit Boldy’s style perfectly. Throughout the album Boldy trades flows with some of his fellow modern underground rulers like Benny The Butcher, Freddie Gibbs and Roc Marciano, but he also holds it down solo for plenty of tracks, bringing a good balance. I just got put on to Boldy this year, and I’ll be paying attention going forward.
7. Th1rt3en – A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism
It’s always a beautiful thing when Pharoahe Monch decides to release new music, as he always leaves anywhere between 3-8 years between his albums, which gives fans a chance to miss him. This being his first release since 2014’s P.T.S.D. album, Pharoahe Monch formed the group Th1rt3en with guitarist Marcus Machado and drummer Daru Jones, bringing a fusion of rock and rap for his latest release. Pharoahe has been known over the years to have one of the most versatile flows and illest cadences in all of Hip-Hop, and so the idea of him ripping through rapid-fire flows over guitar riffs brought excitement before the album even dropped. Add in the title of the album and obviously you have some of the darkest material he’s ever performed in his career. Pharoahe and his new band really delivered on all expectations, bringing something refreshing to both his own career and Hip-Hop as a whole, and making another great entry to the incredible discography he’s built. Th1rt3en is one of my most anticipated concerts to see when COVID eases up and allows artists to tour in Canada again.
6. Conway The Machine – La Maquina
Conway The Machine and the Griselda crew have been killing it to the point where you could say most of the underground sound is now inspired by them. In another year with multiple albums or EPs released, La Maquina stood out for the way Conway added some bounce to his flow and diversified his collaborations. While his fellow Griselda crewmates Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher as usual show up for the closing track, “S.E. Gang,” the album also has a heavy Atlanta presence with features from 2 Chainz, JID and Ludacris. JID in particular has a standout moment of the year with the way him and Conway flow back and forth together on the lead single “Scatter Brain.” The Machine keeps cranking out these dope raps and there doesn’t seem to be a slowdown in sight.
5. Ransom – Se7en
While I’ve heard Ransom kill some guest verses over the years, this is admittedly the first album of his I’ve listened to in full. Se7en is definitely an album that’s for the lovers of bars, punchlines, and wordplay, although it’s much more than just punchline-rap. Each song is named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and Ransom is able to thematically focus each track on that particular sin. He also gets some guest features who play their part perfectly, as a revitalized Lloyd Banks shows up to feed on the beat on “Gluttony,” Royce Da 5’9″ bars-out on “Greed,” and IX WULF provides a soulful hook on “Lust/L.U.S.T.” It’s a short album but it stays on point the whole way through, and Ransom shows that he can rap with the best of them.
4. Benny The Butcher & Harry Fraud – The Plugs I Met 2
The illest cadence in the Griselda crew, the Butcher is back! While his 2020 album Burden of Proof felt like he was doing an impression of an early Jay-Z album rather than keeping the spotlight on that grimy Griselda sound, The Plugs I Met 2 sees a balance between the sound he’s been known for and the new appeal he’s recently captured, all thanks to Harry Fraud’s production. You can feel the inspiration for these songs coming from movies like Scarface, The Godfather, and Carlito’s Way, as Benny channels his influences by artists like Jay-Z, Raekwon, and Nas within his rap style. Being cut from that cloth, the lyricism, bars and content are all up to par with these influences, and Benny is well on his way to building a strong discography with lasting impact.
3. Abstract Mindstate – Dreams Still Inspire
(Shoutout to the homie B-Fresh for putting me on to this.)
On the surface, Kanye West in recent times may be more known for making controversial statements, adding narrative to the Kardashian brand of drama/”entertainment”, and releasing mediocre albums that are a shell of the greatness he had 15 years ago, but he’s still lowkey doing great things for Hip-Hop; this being the illest thing he’s done for the culture since producing Pusha T’s Daytona album in 2018. Abstract Mindstate is a rap duo from Ye’s hometown Chicago who have been around since the nineties, and Kanye West resurrected their music careers by producing this entire album for them. Having never heard of this group before, this was the most refreshing listen I’ve had in a while, as the feel of the album took me back to being able to go to underground rap shows and see local artists performing at small venues. The opposite of the stadium appeal Kanye has spent the last decade doing, Dreams Still Inspire is a much more intimate experience with a College Dropout-era style of production and a focus on the raps and the flows. As a Kanye fan, it’s dope to hear that he still has that old-school Chicago in him, and the lyricism, style and attitude of Abstract Mindstate made me a new fan of theirs.
2. Nas – Magic
After going quiet on the music front since 2012, Nas has now released five albums in the four years between 2018-2021, this being the first time since 1999 he’s released two within one year, and he’s been sharpening his pen and getting better and better with each one. This is his third album in a row produced entirely by Hit-Boy, and while I’ve admittedly found the previous King’s Disease and King’s Disease II albums to be underwhelming, despite the Grammy awards/nominations they’ve received, this one has a different feel to it. It’s short, concise, and to the point. Meant to be a warm-up to the upcoming King’s Disease III, Nas is just out here killing these raps while Hit-Boy’s production sounds more cohesive than his other albums with Nas. While he just won the Best Rap Album award at the 2021 Grammys, this album shows that Nas can still lock in and bar-out like it’s 1994 again, without trying to appeal to a mainstream audience, and simplifying the formula shows a stronger synergy between him and Hit-Boy with a more inspired performance.
1. Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
It may not be a traditional Hip-Hop album, but I jammed this the most last year and added about half of the album to my wedding playlist. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak are the only two artists who could pull off this style of music today and have it executed this well. With a retro seventies feel to it, this is the type of music that gets sampled to make great rap music, although the genre blending between Hip-Hop, Funk, Soul, RnB, and Pop is as smooth as ever on here. The combination of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak made perfect sense when it was first announced, and they complement each other’s vocal styles as expected throughout the album. It’s a shorter album than what I anticipated, but it’s groovy all the way through and makes for a fun listen.
So which albums did I miss or need to give more attention to? Let me know in the comments or on socials!
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