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The 20 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021

The year’s most impressive rap releases included bold moves from Young Thug, Drake, Doja Cat, and Playboi Carti

From top, left to right: UMusic; Republic Records; David Peters; Sacha Lecca

In a lot of ways, 2021 represents one of the most tragic periods in rap history. Over the past 12 months, our sense of loss seemed to outpace our capacity for grief. Before the clock even struck midnight on New Year’s Eve last year, news of the death of hip-hop’s poet laureate, MF Doom, rattled like a shock wave. But rap is also a genre built on resilience, and 2021 saw its biggest artists, in addition to a slate of exciting newcomers, find new ways to balance joy and pain, the prevailing pendulum of emotion in the pandemic era.

There was Lil Nas X, who put to rest whatever fealty to genre or form stubborn rap purists had, with Montero, a textured and confessional album that also finds the “Old Town Road” star really rapping — like, rapping, rapping — while managing to imbue his delivery with the playful pleasure of golden-age dance music. There was U.K. phenom Little Simz’ deeply personal I Might Be Introvert, where she flips gracefully from confronting her own trauma to flexing at a party with ease. Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me if You Get Lost found the rapper finally accepting his own greatness, making for what’s easily his best album.

Rappers spent 2021 in a mood of genuine introspection, which makes sense given that the year was filled with so many reminders of how precious life is. Hip-hop in 2021 felt raw and urgent; Drake and Kanye even settled petty grievances toward the end, perhaps realizing that there’s too much at stake here. The concerns of the real world are as pressing as ever, and that’s ultimately where rap music shines brightest. Here are our picks for the best rap albums from 2021.

From Rolling Stone US


KenTheMan, ‘What’s My Name’

By now the significance of women in hip-hop is a recognized fact. Houston’s KenTheMan makes it clear on her 2021 EP, What’s My Name, where she introduces herself as “Big Ken,” a 27-year-old Gemini who isn’t afraid of what she wants. The sex-positive cut “Onnat,” finds Ken’s versatile wordplay in a dance with her penchant for seduction. The result? An embrace of a more fluid kind of energy, capable of taking charge in the present — a unique sound that only she can embody. Born Kentavia Miller, the musician got her start grinding in Houston before signing to a label earlier this year. The craftsmanship and dedication on display throughout What’s My Name suggests KenTheMan won’t be asking that question for very much longer. —J.I.


Sahbabii, ‘Do It for Demon’

Atlanta rapper Sahbabii spent the year mourning the loss of his childhood friend and drummed up the courage to channel the experience into his debut studio album. On Do It for Demon, Sahbabii is firmly in his element, delivering his trademark wordplay and charm, but with a heaping dose of introspection. The album is as imaginative as Sahbabii’s prolific self-released projects, where he spins up new ways to describe being horny, except with the rapper’s focus on dealing with the pain and anger of a profound loss. The result is one of the year’s most surprising and affecting records. —J.I.


Maxo Kream, ‘Weight of the World’

Maxo Kream is as real as they come. The Houston rapper has been at the forefront of his city’s rap scene for the past decade, moving as deliberately and patiently as the genre’s forefathers. With his stellar 2021 record, Weight of the World, he finally gets the recognition he deserves, but not before the titular weight of the world presents a new slate of challenges. Maxo raps with profound emotional clarity, as he unravels the trappings of what might look like success on the outside and reckons with demons that have lingered in his life, and family, for generations. It’s a rare album that finds an artist being forthright and honest about themselves. No surprise, since it’s coming from a Houston O.G. —J.I.


Ye (f.k.a. Kanye West), ‘Donda’

“Who’s the busiest loser?” Kanye asks on his 10th album. Um, go find yourself a mirror, big fella. Donda was a 27-track brain-heart-spleen-ego dump that was at points confounding, exhilarating, morally bankrupt, deadening, and dazzling. Amidst what is, even by the most generous assessment, an athletically unfocused, petulantly redundant two-hour-plus mess, there’s God-touched beauty (“Moon,” the gospel-dream drone “No Child Left Behind”), soul-scouring realness (“Jesus Lord”), and even the occasional for-the-ages moment of old-Kanye banger transcendence (the Weeknd/Lil Baby-assisted “Hurricane”). Kanye continues to process his conflicted, grieving, striving, self-canceling story in grueling real time. At its best, it’s the work of a man who refuses to let his bullshit get so boring that we can just ignore him — no matter how bad we want to, or how hard he tries. —J.D.


Young Thug, ‘Punk’

For an album named after a movement of aggression, Punk is remarkably soft. Sometimes Young Thug is crude when he’s delicate (“I wanna lay with you every night and we never bone”), but he’s direct about his anxieties (“I came from nothin’ but that ain’t how the world see me”). Navigating his childhood traumas, complicated relations with law enforcement, and his responsibilities as a wealthy community figure, Thug shows skill in the tender without sacrificing the fun of his oeuvre. Complete with some of the best work this year from his contemporaries J. Cole, Drake, Doja Cat, and Gunna, Punk traverses levity and darkness with tact. —M.C.


YSL, ‘Slime Language 2’

As invitingly bright and riotously overpopulated as its cover, this excessively long showcase for Young Thug’s Young Stoner Life label, hosted by Thugger and Gunna, is a maelstrom of slime-drenched ebullience. Thug and Gunna team up for the inane earworm “Ski,” Drake slips and slides through “Solid,” and Future beams in to unfurl a cosmic croak over a flute loop on “That Go!” The record is a chance to shine for scads of lesser-known artists, too, like Brooklyn barker Rowdy Rebel and the unfoonkwithable Unfoonk. If you’re a rapper who isn’t on this record, it might be time to call your agent and tell them to go back to their old job at Dunkin’ Donuts. Yet, at 23 tracks, the skips quotient is stunningly low and the energy never lets down. —J.D. 


Drake, ‘Certified Lover Boy’

Is it Drake’s best album? Well, no. (The line to argue Take Care versus Nothing Was the Same versus If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late starts over there, bro.) But Certified Lover Boy is still a highly enjoyable cruise on autopilot from modern pop’s most charming blob of resentment and self-pity. Expensive samples, platinum guests, bitter bars about exes and frenemies — Drake hits all the familiar notes that have made him one of the most popular artists on the planet, and then some. He also remakes Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” as a Lonely Island-worthy comedy rap hit, just to show he can. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll listen again and again. —S.V.L.


Pi’erre Bourne – ‘The Life of Pi’erre 5’

Pi’erre Bourne just might be on his way to a Kanye-esque crossover. After essentially reshaping the sound of modern hip-hop before being able to even buy a drink, the Atlanta-based producer has taken rap more seriously over the years, and the results are starting to pay off. Where earlier iterations of his Life of Pi’erre projects felt very much like a producer trying to rap, The Life of Pi’erre 5, from earlier this year, sticks the landing. Pi’erre is smooth, commanding the contours of his production to make some of the year’s most genuinely fun music. —J.I.


BabyTron, ‘Bin Reaper 2’

The 27-track Bin Reaper 2, the latest album from Michigan rapper BabyTron, starts off with a sample borrowed from Harry Potter. “Scooby-Doo, hopping out the van, gon’ leave a mystery,” the 20-year old raps on the aptly titled “Half-Blood Prince,” “Should’ve went to Hogwarts, I’m doing wizardry.” On paper, it’s a Halloween-themed album; a formal follow-up to Tron’s 2019 project,Bin Reaper. BabyTron,whose rise came along with his crew of wise guys, Shitty Boyz, manages to maintain a relatively spooky theme throughout the album without making it feel like a gimmick. And the project is part of a prolific pace of releases for the rapper. He released Pre-Game, Back to the Future, Sleeve Nash last year alone. On Bin Reaper 2, he shows glimmers of what’s to come, pulling off feats of rap magic before listeners’ very ears. —J.I.


Lil Nas X, ‘Montero’

Despite containing what feels like an entire universe of music, Lil Nas X’s album is a normal length. At 15 songs and just over 40 minutes, it’s a surprisingly traditional album from Gen Z’s most famous disruptor. Lil Nas X spends Montero proving he can do it all — to the point where it’s easy to forget that it’s his first actual album. Nas makes bold moves with Megan Thee Stallion, Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat, and, in the smash “Industry Baby, Jack Harlow. He makes even bolder moves with Elton John in “One of Me” — a beautiful moment of cross-generational, cross-cultural solidarity between two queer pop heroes for the ages. —R.S.


Doja Cat, ‘Planet Her’

Doja Cat isn’t weird just to get attention — she’s weird because she’s weird. And on Planet Her, she celebrates the hot-pink lipstick-burlesque mess of a universe where she lives, bleeding pop into trap into dancehall into science fiction. She brings out the freak in the Weeknd (“You Right”), Young Thug (“Payday”), and SZA, with the sparkly bubblegum tongue-kissing raptures of “Kiss Me More.” As for her Ariana Grande duet, “I Don’t Do Drugs,” it proves these off-the-wall divas are truly two of a kind. —R.S.


Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Something for Thee Hotties’

Megan Thee Stallion had other nonmusical accomplishments she needed to reach this year, that despite being one of the most sought-after artists on the planet. The newly minted college graduate didn’t leave fans in the dark completely, she dropped Something for Thee Hotties in the fall, a needed fix for a world now hooked on Megan’s unique ability to transfer her own self-confident affirmations onto listeners. The collection of unreleased freestyles and loosies finds Meg reconnecting to the playful excellence that she exhibited on early mixtapes: her ability to make intricate, tongue-contorting bars feel effortless and, most important, sexy. Megan Thee Stallion took something of a break from music in 2021 (though there was the excellent single “Thot Shit” in June), but managed to drop one of the hottest records of the year just by digging through her archive. Next year’s only going to get hotter. —J.I


Boldy James and Alchemist, ‘Bo Jackson’

Producer Alchemist and rapper Boldy James reconnected for the hard-nosed, slugging Bo Jackson, a follow-up to last year’s The Price of Tea in China. The second half of “Double Hockey Sticks” is spooky as a haunted house, while “Brickmile to Montana” is bludgeoning and thunderous; both demonstrate that James is still focused on delivering cold-eyed stories of drug dealing and shootouts in an unchanging tone. The beat in “First 48 Freestyle” channels some of the grandeur of early-2000s radio rap, but even this opulent setting can’t shake James’ focus — or make him bother to write a chorus. “Thuggin’ in the concrete jungle, planet of the apes,” James raps. “Every step I take, I take a risk, I can’t make one mistake.” —E.L.


Tyler, the Creator, ‘Call Me if You Get Lost’

On “Wusyaname,” the Grammy-nominated single from Tyler, the Creator’s excellent album Call Me if You Get Lost, YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Ty Dolla $ign pop into Tyler’s world of vibrant palettes and romantic whimsy. Both artists sound as free, and as fun, as ever. The same goes for the rest of the album, Tyler’s most confident to date. Call Me if You Get Lost manages to meet the world in the middle, with Tyler bringing a host of characters into his universe, as he finds himself maturing into his own talents. That the whole thing is hosted by hip-hop mixtape legend DJ Drama only proves that Tyler is ready for his O.G. era. —J.I.


Mach-Hommy, ‘Pray for Haiti’

It’s fitting that in 2021, Griselda Records, of Buffalo, New York, would come to dominate the rap subconscious. The independent label founded by native rapper Westside Gunn tapped into the year’s hunger for depth like it was its job. Gunn served as executive producer on Newark, New Jersey-based Mach-Hommy’s complete masterwork Pray for Haiti. The album offers a codex of spirit and feeling. With production from Griselda staples like Cee Gee and Denny Laflare, Mach-Hommy takes his distinct vocal precision to new realms. He’s a master of the kind of East Coast rap tropes that still lay as the bedrock of the genre writ large, but with an almost algorithmic level of computational agility, grafting tendrils of references together to cut through to something spiritual. The album’s interlude “Kreyol (skit)” is a recording of academic research on Haitian Creole. It serves as the LP’s guiding thesis, and the reason it will instantly be remembered as a classic. Almost like he were a prophet, Mach-Hommy communicates with what’s hidden in the text. —J.I.


Playboi Carti, ‘Whole Lotta Red’

OK, sure, Whole Lotta Red came out at the end of 2020. On Christmas Day, to be exact. But the week between its release and the start of this year is irrelevant when you think of what a seismic shift the album represents. Carti stakes ground in the current generation’s sonic sensibility and delivers one of the most forward-thinking rap records since Kanye West’s Yeezus. “That’s my job as of right now. This sound is something that’s going to be regular and relevant in the future,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “That’s just part of creating something new. If this is something that people accept right away, how different is it?” He was right. The album’s fingerprints are all over everything we heard in 2021. —J.I.