This has been a year unlike any in the history of hip-hop. The variety of sub-genres and styles are more plentiful every year, and in 2021, fans were blessed with no shortage of quality music to choose from. Questions of AOTY or GOAT become less and less relevant as artists within hip-hop move in completely different directions stylistically. Nonetheless, I’ve chosen a handful of artists to make note of that impressed me the most in 2021. As usual, below is the latest playlist with my favorite tracks for the year.
The Latest Playlist: 2021
*Track listing at bottom of post
The Year of The Alchemist
2021 was the year of The Alchemist. Easily the producer of the year, The Alchemist was debatably the most significant figure in hip-hop for 2021. The veteran producer was coming off of a great year in 2020, releasing 2 of the best albums of that year with Boldy James and Freddie Gibbs. He accomplished that feat again in 2021 with Boldy James and Armand Hammer, but that’s only a portion of Al’s impact on hip-hop this year. The Alchemist’s success of late has been in his unique ability to create dynamic cinematic listening experiences through his production. I believe he chooses emcees to collaborate with based in part on how compelling they are as protagonists, and how well they’re able to narrate their own content within Al’s aesthetic. His beats are thoughtfully layered and masterfully produced, but still maintain the warm character of dusty vinyl.
Early in the year he released Haram with abstract emcee-duo Armand Hammer (Billy Woods & E L U C I D). For Armand Hammer fans, this was a dream come true. I hate the phrase, but when it comes to working with Billy Woods & E L U C I D, The Alchemist understood the assignment. As can be expected from Armand Hammer, their dystopian metaphor-infused raps are deeply layered societal critiques that are not for the faint of heart. The Alchemist composed a series of eerily sinister soundscapes for these experimental emcees, creating a fitting backdrop for their post-apocalyptic vignettes. Armand Hammer and The Alchemist are all avid proponents of experimental beat production, and collectively do an exceptional job blending themes of societal collapse and insanity with an underground hip-hop aesthetic. This is easily an AOTY contender for any fans of abstract or experimental hip-hop.
A few months after Haram, The Alchemist and Boldy James released Bo Jackson; another AOTY contender, which has been just as successful if not more successful than their previous year’s The Price of Tea in China. The Alchemist and Boldy James have a very special collaborative energy. The sound here is drastically different from Al’s work with Armand Hammer, and is equally inspired by the corresponding emcee’s aesthetic. Boldy is a great protagonist. His smooth villainous flow details a life of crime and business; cooking, selling, and trafficking illegal drugs. For Bo Jackson, The Alchemist assembled an impressive cocktail of bizarre and vintage sounding samples that perfectly support the nefarious energy of Boldy’s content, reminiscent of old mafia movie scores. As if having 2 AOTY contenders wasn’t enough, The Alchemist & Boldy James released a follow-up project titled Super Tecmo Bo near the end of the year. This project provided a fuller, more ‘supped-up’ production from Al, with even sharper raps from Boldy. I still prefer Bo Jackson to Super Tecmo Bo, but there isn’t a bad track on either project.
The Alchemist has also been collaborating with a younger generation of artists, as seen on the 2 EPs that he released this year: This Thing of Ours & This Thing of Ours 2. It’s no mystery to fans that The Alchemist has been collaborating with Earl Sweatshirt, but this two-part EP provided strong evidence that he’s become a central figure in this rapidly progressing sub-genre of lo-fi, sample-heavy, lethargic emotive rap, which I wrote about in last years 2020 Year in Review (See Lo-Fi Lethargic Raps). The Alchemist included many of the bigger names from this niche genre in his project, including Earl Sweatshirt, Navy Blue, MIKE, MAVI, Maxo, Sideshow & Pink Siifu. The Alchemist has shown that he is not only capable of perfectly catering to the aesthetic of different emcees, but he also brings out the best, most interesting versions of the artists that he works with. I can’t wait for whatever he brings us in 2022.
Griselda founder Westside Gunn aka Flygod also delivered two AOTY contenders…or one, depending on how you view the ‘2-sided’ 8th installment of his long running Hitler Wears Hermes series.Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Sincerely Adolf was released in August, and in September he released Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Side B, for a generous total of 33 tracks packed to the brim with top-notch features. Gunn’s style in 2021 remains uncompromisingly outlandish as he raps of extravagant expenses, flamboyant fashion, and malicious murder…gun sounds included. The abundance of features appear to have been a call to action from WSG for his collaborators to bring their A game, because everybody did. The guests include the usual extended Griselda family members such as Stove God Cooks, Mach-Hommy, Rome Streetz and of course Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, as well as appearances from standout artists like Jadakiss, Jay Electronica, Lil Wayne, and Tyler, The Creator. I especially like the synergy between Westside Gunn rapping and Stove God Cooks on the hook as heard in tracks like “RIGHT NOW” and “Vogue Cover”. When it comes to the beats, Flygod never disappoints. Between the embrace of his rap persona and his preference in samples, it’s no mystery that MF DOOM would be proud of his former collaborators recent success, and the influence he’s had on it.
Navy Blue The Truest
Navy Blue has quickly become one of my favorites since his December 2020 release: Song of Sage: Post Panic!. That was technically last year, so I won’t say much more about it than ‘it’s incredible, and you should give it a listen’. This year Navy put a lot of work into his solo release Navy’s Reprise, as well as a great deal of work producing albums for his peers. Navy’s Reprise is a deeply personal arrangement of introspective reflections. Wise beyond his years, humble with respectable intentions, he opens up about his family, spirituality, and his efforts to heal trauma and grow as a being. Navy is apparently void of inhibitions as he pours his heart all over the project. When it comes to authentic expression in hip-hop, Navy Blue is The Truest.
Navy’s sample heavy production fits comfortably in the “Lo-Fi Lethargic Raps” style that I wrote about last year. I likely oversimplified my explanation of the style, but I’m happy to see it taking off. Navy Blue is another one of the central figures in that community of artists as both an emcee and a producer. Navy’s beats beg to be expressed upon. Generally at a slower tempo, Navy tends toward samples that evoke emotion, compelling emcees to genuinely express. This year Navy produced 3 different albums (not including his own) for emcees AKAI SOLO (True Sky), Wiki (Half God), and Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon (Beautifully Black). I hadn’t heard of AKAI SOLO or Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon until these Navy-produced releases, but they’re both on my radar now. Beautifully Black is my personal favorite production from Navy Blue this year. Half God ended up being a very successful collaboration with Wiki that culminated in a tour that included Wiki, Navy Blue, and Demahjiae. I was lucky enough to catch their show in LA, and it’s worthy of note that Navy Blue is the real deal at a live show.
Another artist that gave us 2 AOTY contenders in 2021 was Mach-Hommy, with Pray For Haiti and Balens Cho (Hot Candles). His first release of the year, Bulletproof Luh went largely under the radar despite having some solid tracks; it was his 2nd & 3rd 2021 releases that stole the show. Pray for Haiti was an instant classic. Produced by Flygod himself, Westside Gunn found some characteristically outlandish samples that Mach-Hommy coasts over with his smooth and raspy vocals. Some tracks stand out like “The Stellar Ray Theory”, “Marie”, and “Kriminel”, but the project is stylistically consistent as a perfectly blended vibe of Westside Gunn & Mach-Hommy. In this project, Mach incorporates moments of singing that are refreshingly melodic, creating a nice contrast with his off-kilter flow structure. Towards the end of the year, Mach-Hommy released Balens Cho (Hot Candles), and despite having only 8 full-length songs, many fans prefer this release to Pray For Haiti. It’s another solid project with a jazzier mellow vibe. Over the course of 2021, Mach-Hommy showed an immense amount of progress in his craft, and has become a dynamic artist with a great amount of stylistic flexibility.
Lukah is an emcee from Memphis that I only just discovered with his early-2021 release; When The Black Hand Touches You. I was immediately drawn to this album as an early 2021 favorite, due to the well-polished nature of its classic underground style. Lukah is very good at rapping and makes great music for underground hip-hop heads. With southern flavor and emcee smashing confidence he projects every word with powerful delivery, relentlessly rapping details and perspectives on life in his community. I have my favorites, but every track on this project is solid.
His 2nd release of the year, Why Look Up, God’s In the Mirror shows a clear improvement in vocal projection and flow, accompanied by a fuller production on the instrumentals. On this project Lukah continues his tear on 2021, establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with: “I am God, God is power, who dares to challenge it?”. There’s no shortage of braggadocious boasting, but he also has some very real moments addressing his community and mental health in tracks like “COLORED ONE” and “THE WAY TO DAMASCUS”. This project is just as consistent as the previous, and a strong contender for AOTY. Why Look Up, God’s In the Mirror also has a handful of features including Boldy James, Estee Nack, and Cities Aviv. I’m looking forward to seeing what this relatively new artist comes up with next.
I’ve mentioned a lot of “contenders” for Album of the Year. There’s been more variety in hip-hop this year than ever before, and there is no objective AOTY. My personal favorite album from 2021 is Gumbo from Pink Siifu. Without question, it’s the album that I vibed to the most this year. The project is a beautifully orchestrated stew of southern styles and sounds mixing into an absolutely delicious project. Pink Siifu soulfully glides through an eclectic mix of funky, jazzy, grimy, swaggy instrumentals, rapping about friends and family, while proudly embracing his southern roots. This is an album that keeps the listener engaged from track to track, never falling victim to any kind of predictable repetition. Pink executes a variety of styles with mastery and class, from the more hype tracks like “Roscoe’!” to the super laid back jazzy joints like “Gumbo’! 4 tha Folks”. I’ve listened to this album in it’s entirety many times, and I rarely skip tracks, but my favorite tracks that refuse to get old are “Fk U Mean/ Hold me Dwn”, “Back’!”, “Doin Tew Much. (In My Mama Name)”, and “Call tha Bro (Tapped In)”. Siifu is a dynamic experimental artist that’s rapidly evolving. As much as I’d love to hear a sequel to this project, it stands successfully on it’s own as a fantastic moment in Pink Siifu’s career and 2021 hip-hop as a whole.
Notable Videos of 2021
Freddie Gibbs feat. ScHoolboy Q– Gang Signs
Brady Watt, Westside Gunn, DJ Premier – The Narcissist
Erick Arc Elliot – Self Made on Colors
Isaiah Rashad – HB2U on Colors
Kipp Stone – Retrograde Raps on Kinda Neat
Ray Vaughn on LA Leakers
J. Cole on LA Leakers
The Latest Playlist 2021
CZARFACE & MF DOOM – Break in the Action
Freddie Gibbs feat. ScHoolboy Q – Gang Signs
JPEGMAFIA – HAZARD DUTY PAY!
Navy Blue – Ritual
Mick Jenkins – The Valley of the Shadow of Death
Tyler, The Creator – MASSA
Westside Gunn feat. Stove God Cooks & Jadakiss – RIGHT NOW
YUNGMORPHEUS & Eyedress – Candyman
Pink Siifu feat. Maxo – Call tha Bro (Tapped In)
Chris Crack – Sex Dreams About Platonic Friends
Medhane – Keep Looking
MIKE – Babyvillain (in our veins)
Fat Ray – Mental Case
Nas – Nas is Good
Cities Aviv – Imma Stay Here
Rome Streetz & Futurewave – Mud into Moet
ANKHLEJOHN – The Browder Files
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Roaches Don’t Fly
Mach-Hommy – Separation of the Sheep and the Goats
Below are some of my favorite hip-hop highlights of 2020. Check the following playlists, albums, and videos for my personal recap of the year.
The Latest Playlist: 2020
*Track listing at bottom of post
For hip-hop in 2020, the crown belongs to Griselda Records. Label founder Westside Gunn, brother Conway the Machine, and cousin Benny the Butcher have been creating plenty of buzz over the last few years, but in 2020 they made a statement. With 5 albums between the 3 of them, a debut album by their female counterpart Armani Cesar, and a Griselda-released mixtape from the tremendously productive Boldy James, 2020 has been Griselda’s most productive year to date.
Despite making a sudden splash on the scene, these emcees have been rapping for a long time. While the way they rap is characteristically unique in it’s graphic descriptions and hard-hitting punch lines, their music has a foundation in a classic style of hip-hop, garnering them no shortage of praise from hip-hop legends across the map.
Through expert storytelling, Griselda artists include explicit details of criminal activities, and while they don’t necessarily glorify the lifestyle, they are not in the least bit apologetic. They don’t shy away from rapping about the details of their lives before rap fame, the struggle they endured to get here today, or boasting on their success that could only have come from unwavering perseverance.
One of the most compelling stylistic features of Griselda artists is their footing in a Mafioso aesthetic. This theme runs through all label members, and is one of the notable characteristics that unify them as a collective. It is not surprising that Griselda has been referred to as “the next Wu-Tang Clan”, which has been recognized even by members of the Wu-Tang Clan themselves. This claim is not just an acknowledgement of success in 2020, but an understanding that Griselda is set to be an iconic generational influence on the culture.
Lo-Fi Lethargic Raps
Over the past 5-7 years there has been a growing sub-genre of hip-hop characterized by low-energy rapping over lo-fi, sample-central beats. Counter to stereotypical rap braggadocio, artists in this style write more genuinely introspective. Despite their lethargic leaning tone, they write in a way that is both deeply expressive and seemingly therapeutic. The consistent themes are self-reflection and social observation from an introverted perspective.
The beats can be easily digestible, or in many cases can break rhythmic norms, providing an embrace of dystopian aesthetic. This approach gives the artists flexibility to maintain a refreshing level of unpredictability. It may not be a coincidence that 2020 was such prolific year for this style of hip-hop, being a year defined by isolation, depression, and dystopia.
I often refer to this style of hip-hop as “the other mumble rap”. While this sounds nothing like the commonly referred to sub-genre of mumble rap, these artists undeniably rap in a way that could be described as mumbling, but are nonetheless far more articulate as lyricists. There have been about a dozen or more notable artists operating successfully within this style, and while there is a common thread connecting them all, each has their own unique stylistic contribution. Above are 6 projects within this style from 2020 that I recommend from Medhane, MIKE, Redveil, Demahjiae, Chester Watson,and Navy Blue.
Boldy James Banner Year
I’ve declined to explicitly choose an album of the year for 2020, but if any artist should be recognized for their productivity it would have to be Boldy James. This year James dropped 3 collaborative projects with The Alchemist, Sterling Toles, and Real Bad Man, as well as a mixtape released by none other than Griselda Records (The Versace Tape).
Boldy James has been on the scene for over a decade, but his presence has never been more prolific than it was in 2020. Between the 4 projects, Boldy generously delivered 47 tracks (not including features), easily making 2020 his banner year. Despite the abundance of production, he didn’t cut corners. There are almost no intros or skits, and The Price of Tea in China & Real Bad Boldy are legitimate contenders for album of the year.
Like other Griselda artists, Boldy is a great storyteller, and his laid back flow guides the listener through a mesmerizing tour of illicit struggle raps. Each project has a different producer and corresponding sound, demonstrating James’ versatility and ability to adapt without compromising his own style.