If 2020 was the year that brought our world to a screeching half, 2021 is the year where we slowly try to crank up the engine again.
Emphasis on s l o w l y.
As most of y’all know, the music industry was one of the many, many casualties of the 2020 pandemic. A pandemic meant no crowds, which meant no concerts or touring – which meant artists had very little motivation to release music they couldn’t promote by touring. Access to studios and other resources had to be a pain too.
So while of this writing the world may be beginning to open up, hip-hop and R&B have a LONG way to go before they’re operating at top speed again.
While most of music biggest names have been hiatus, this has given new stars an opportunity to make the most of the less-crowded landscape, as well as a few veterans who are looking for redemption.
So here goes – the 25 best albums I’ve heard in 2021 far, in no specific order.
It’s been a very lean year for great releases so far. Let’s hope things pick up. In the meantime, shout out to these artists for holding us down.
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist, Haram
Yelawolf & DJ Paul, Slumafia
Devin the Dude, Soulful Distance
Cordae, Just Until…
Kelly Price, Grace
Admittedly, I didn’t know very much about UK rapper Slowthai before release of his new album, only that he made a fool of himself at an awards show and the Twitter outrage that followed. But I still believe in accepting apologies and Slowthai has since put that growth into Tyron, an album that shows both sides of his personality. The set is divided into halves – one featuring the usual rap braggadocio and the other rooted in introspection. Both serve as a self-assessment of a complicated artist, with his off-kilter delivery working a lot better than you’d expect. Tyron won’t win over his detractors but it’s an honest look at a man who seems to be working to be better.
Lloyd Banks, The Course of the Inevitable
When G-Unit Mania swept across hip-hop in the mid 00s, Lloyd Banks quickly established himself as the group’s premier lyricist, a punchline machine that dropped show-stealing bars in every feature. Well the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Course of the Inevitable, his first LP in more than a decade, is a lyricists’ showcase – bar after bar after bar of lyrical prowess. Banks was often seen as an essential but secondary cog in the G-Unit machine; it’s good to see him owning the spotlight.
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
How long have we screamed to the heavens that Jazmine Sullivan deserves more? Heaux Tales might, finally, be redemption for an artist who has been so long overlooked. Part EP, part Vagina Monologues, Jazmine weaves in stories of women and relationships while showcasing her always showstopping vocals. Though the brevity and sometimes repetitive themes keep it from reaching the highs of Jazmine’s earlier works (like 2015’s criminally underrated Reality Show) it’s a solid project for an artist whose career is clearly on the rise. Deservedly.
Kota the Friend & Statik Selektah, To Kill a Sunrise
Kota is one of those artists my timeline has been trying to put me on to for years now. His latest collabo with the always-reliable Statik Selektah is the one that finally won me over. In a industry where fraudulence is not only accepted, it’s celebrated, Kota is as real and relatable as it gets. Kota drops gems about life struggles over Statik’s easy-going production, often making the LP feel like a convo between friends. To Kill a Sunrise‘s authenticity makes it a standout – it’s my kind of grown man rap.
Mia Ariannaa, I’m a Good Girl … Do You Believe Me?
It seemed like R&B vet Rico Love had been championing emerging artist Mia Ariannaa forever by the time her EP I’m a Good Girl … Do You Believe Me? finally landed earlier this year. And credit where it’s due – she lived up to the billing. Mia blends classic production and arrangements with 2021 attitude, whether she’s sliding over a Ginuwine sample on “AnxiousAF” or threatening to catch bodes on “S.T.M.F.U.” The starpower is there, and this is just the beginning.
Ruff Endz, Rebirth
Yes, Ruff Endz on a 2021 best-of list. Life is wild. Of course, that’s no shot at the quality David Chance and Dante Jordan have brought to the game for the past 20 years, but besides their fame in the early 00s they’ve mostly eluded the spotlight. Rebirth is yet another sleeper in their catalog, a warm, soulful slice of R&B that’s increasingly becoming a rarity on today’s playlists. The homies from Baltimore haven’t lost a step and in an era where authentic R&B is becoming harder to find than your missing airpods, they deserve your ears.
Rod Wave, Soulfly
I mentioned this in the Soul In Stereo Cypher on Facebook recently and I stand by it – Rod Wave does everything today’s underachieving rappers attempt to do but 10,000 times better. Rod Wave easily surpasses the current trap drum tropes by lacing his production with well-written, introspective bars and solidly sung hooks. No lazy, repetitive verses and ear-splitting autotuned vocals here – it’s melodic rap done right. There’s still room to grow – especially in terms of more diverse production – but the potential for superstardom is clear.
Conway the Machine & Big Ghost LTD, If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed
If you had to break down the three-headed cerberus that is Griselda, Benny the Butcher has the star appeal, Westside Gunn is the eccentric head turner but Conway the Machine is the backbone – no frills, all bars. It’s why his union with blogger turned beatmaker Big Ghost (y’all think *I* go too hard on Drake n’ dem? I miss Big Ghost’s venom) is a such a perfect match. Galaxy Knuckles crafts haunting tracks straight out of The Conjuring while Conway quite effortlessly batters his opposition into submission. The beauty of If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed is in its simplicity – a brief but potent release that keeps the Griselda juggernaut moving.
Robin Thicke, On Earth, and In Heaven
If you know Robin Thicke, you know the story: The tabloid drama, lawsuits, family tragedy, and more way too depressing to mention. But you don’t hear enough about the positives – including a new marriage and three new children. His latest release, his first in seven years, marks the rebuilding both his life and his career. On Earth and in Heaven has Thicke at his most focused and confident in years, belting out breezy R&B that touches on love, family and healing a broken world. From song quality to sequencing to an overarching theme, this may be his Thicke’s most consistent album to date – the redemption story he’s long needed.
Add VanJess to the list of Quiet R&B MVPs, the artists who may fly under the mainstream radar but consistently lace hungry fans with the sustenance they so often lack. Their latest EP Homegrown doesn’t offer many surprises – it’s more of the same but, with VanJess, that’s welcome news. There are the usual flashes of nostalgia, groovy upbeat cuts and a few glimpses of funk and electronica. It’s R&B that will appeal across generations. Homegrown is a pretty abbreviated release but enough to tide us over until we get that long-awaited next LP.
Mac Ayres, Magic 8ball
The very definition of “a vibe,” Mac Ayres’ Magic 8ball is made for Grown Folks’ Functions now that the world is opening back up from COVIDpocalypse. A blend of lo-fi production and classic crooning, Magic 8ball avoids the trappings of “background music” by injecting energy with several upbeat cuts – enough to raise the tempo but not distract from the mood. Mac Ayres’ star was rising right before the world was hit with planetary lockdown. Hopefully Magic 8ball gets the party restarted.
Rochelle Jordan, Play with the Changes
Everyone loves a comeback story. Ten years ago, Rochelle Jordan seemed to be next up as one of those most prominent faces of the early alt-R&B movement. Ill-timed label woes and health issues took their toll, causing her to drift from the spotlight and see most of the decade pass her by. Play with the Changes could be redemption. Once again bucking R&B conventions (but not totally falling into the trap trappings), Rochelle creates a rave-like atmosphere that swings from vibey electronic sounds to slightly more traditional soul. And she has lots to say too, crafting messages that shatter the impenetrable “strong Black woman” stereotype and seek to protect Black men in a world that sees them as moving targets. Play with the Changes is all about innovation, and we’re here for it.
Benny the Butcher & 38 Spesh, Trust the Sopranos
Remember those old DJ Clue albums from the late 90s/early 2000s? Trust the Sopranos, a collab from the ever-grinding Benny the Butcher and parter-in-crime 38 Spesh, revives those feelings in all the best ways. While Benny unquestionably is the star here, 38 Spec – along with a whole rogue’s gallery of guest spitters – fill in the gaps over upbeat soulful cuts and hard-hitting boom bap. Admittedly, there’s a glaring lack of cohesion throughout the set but that kinda adds to the throwback mixtape feel of the project. Trust the Sopranos is by no means a gamechanger but it’s a fun set filled with random teamups and several memorable cuts.
Lucky Daye, Table for Two
Repeat after me: Lucky Daye don’t miss. Table for Two is a short but very sweet collection of duets with an array of R&B stars, each of them feeling very different but Lucky finds unique chemistry in each new setting. From going to war with accusations of infidelity with Yebba to dreaming of rendezvous with Queen Naija, each paring tells a unique story and presents a different side of Lucky Daye, both creatively and artistically. The concept is simple but the results are stellar. It shouldn’t be a surprise, though – Lucky Daye don’t miss.
Joyce Wrice, Overgrown
For like two decades, my generation of R&B fans have been screaming, “we want that old thing back – give us that 90s sound.” Amazingly (and depressingly), we’ve now aged to the point where the generation AFTER us are saying, “we want that old thing back – give us that 2000s sound.” Good news for the 106 & Park kids, Joyce Wrice is your savior. Clearly inspired by the stylings of mid-00s hitmakers, Overgrown feels like a revival, a burst of energy in a genre that had so often felt stagnant in recent years. Overgrown is R&B’s most promising debut this year so far, instantly making Joyce a star to watch and giving us a glimpse of hope that brighter days lie ahead.
Brockhampton, Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
I’ve always liked Brockhampton but I never quite loved them as much as other corners of the Internet. The eclectic band certainly had highs on their Saturation series but inconsistency was often their downfall. Roadrunner is where it all comes together, by far their most consistent and focused release to date. Paring down their lengthy verses and more experimental outings have worked wonders, resulting in a blend of hip-hop and pop that never wears out its welcome and showcases the talents of all its many members. The diverse guest list works better than you’d expect too, ranging from Uncle Charlie Wilson to JPEGMafia. It’s an often thoughtful but always fun release from a group that seemingly has finally found themselves.
When you think of Gallant, think of growth. Ology, his underrated but stellar 2016 release, seemed to set him on the path to greatness. While it raised his profile, his follow up, Sweet Insomnia, failed to reach the high bar set by its predecessor. Neptune puts things right back on track, an etherial experience that avoids the boring ‘vibey’ pitfalls of its contemporaries by maintaining a strong narrative through each track. The EP plays out as a love affair gone awry, with each track featuring Gallant wrestling with his emotions. Neptune is artistic redemption for Gallant, solidifying his reputation as one of R&B’s most eclectic minds.
Conway the Machine, La Maquina
Last year I called Griselda the MVPs of 2020, and that label has proven to be even MORE true in 2021. Due to the pandemic crippling music releases across the board, Griselda has made the most of the scant real estate, throwing the industry on its back to dominate the barren landscape. Conway’s From King to a God LP was a top 5 album last year and, before its follow-up God Don’t Make Mistakes drops later this year, he drops ANOTHER contender. The man doesn’t sleep. From King to a God may have aimed for a more universal appeal at times but La Maquina is pure, uncut Conway – the gritty realness you’ve come to expect from Griselda’s secret weapon. Conway menaces his way through every track. Even with surprising guests like Ludacris and JID at his side, the mood never changes, resulting in an air-tight release. Griselda isn’t just flooding the block, they’re an absolute tsunami right now. Conway might be the most reliable cog in that machine.
I can honestly say this as one of the biggest DMX fans you’ll ever meet: I love DMX. I didn’t love most DMX albums. As great as he was at making iconic hits, his overall projects (outside of the first two) were jarringly inconsistent at times. In my eyes, Exodus, X’s final work before his untimely death, is one of his most cohesive projects to date. What it lacks in blockbuster singles it shines with a more cohesive narrative of an outlaw gunslinger finding one last shot at glory. X regains his hunger alongside fellow veterans like Nas and Jay Z, breaks bread with the next generation of spitters like Griselda, and, heartbreakingly, makes amends with his fractured family on the album’s closing tracks. Sure, it doesn’t measure up to his late-90s peak, but as a final farewell to his fans and family, Exodus does the dog’s legacy proud.
Pharohe Monch & Th1rt3en, A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism
Full disclosure – this one ain’t for everybody. Queens rap kingpin Pharoahe Monch teams with drummer Daru Jones and guitarist Marcus Machado to form the band Th1rt3en, creating a rap-rock hybrid that sounds like an odd mix on paper. And honestly, it IS an odd mix on first listen. But that’s why I don’t rely on ‘one listen’ album reviews – with each repeat listen, my ears got more adjusted to the raucous rock sounds and tuned into Monch’s incredible storytelling. What shouldn’t work eventually does, with Monch’s unparalleled lyricism and insight driving everything home. It’s a risky but rewarding experiment.
Mach-Hommy, Pray for Haiti
Pray for Haiti is the most non-Griselda Griselda album on this list. Mach-Hommy was once a member of the collective before falling out with Westside Gunn. Cooler heads have prevailed and Pray for Haiti serves as a reunion for the duo, with Westside serving as executive producer/guest star/random ad-lib machine as Mach spits barbs sharper than Snoop’s nail gun from The Wire. His flow is so effortless yet impactful, making every track an experience. Of all of 2021’s releases so far, Pray for Haiti might be the biggest sleeper and high on the list of rap’s album of the year contenders.
Benny the Butcher, The Plugs I Met 2
I thought it would be pretty tough for Benny to outdo the original The Plugs I Met but his partnership with producer Harry Fraud certainly makes me question that. The first half of this short, nine-track set is among some of Benny’s best work to date, backed by some of Fraud’s best production in a long time. Benny’s confidence leaps out of the speakers – he KNOWS this is his time and revels in it. While the momentum slows slightly on the second half, Benny never loses his focus, making The Plugs I Met 2 a worthy successor to the celebrated original.
J. Cole, The Off Season
Being a objective – emphasis on objective – J. Cole fan is often an exercise in frustration. As his fame exploded over the course of the 2010s, it seemed like his LPs, while celebrated as modern-day classics among Twitter stans, lacked less punch each and every time. You knew Cole still had the hunger, as his features on OTHER artists’ song constantly proved, but his own projects rarely matched the hype. The Off Season is a much needed course correction, boasting the cohesion, quality production and tighter lyrics that his more recent works lacked. While Cole has no problem boasting about his successes, it’s the introspection that shines brightest. Ignore the stan accounts that try to convince you that Cole is great – it’s the passionate, fiery storytelling showcased here that proves he’s a giant among his peers.
Raheem DeVaughn & Apollo Brown, Lovesick
Four words: I. Told. You. So. When I heard that Raheem DeVaughn (the hardest working man in R&B) and Apollo Brown (arguably hip-hop’s most unsung producer) were uniting for this project, I smelled an R&B album of the year contender. Your boy is (almost) never wrong. Raheem’s vocals are tailor-made for Apollo’s soulful stylings, which is why Lovesick is such a perfect match. R&B’s Love King is in all his regal glory here, delivering bedroom burners and silky slow jams effortlessly. Top-tier MCs like the veteran Skyzoo, next-up Westside Boogie and underrated 3D Na’Tee are great additions too. Lovesick is a standout in Raheem’s already impressive catalog and one of 2021’s brightest highlights.
Topaz Jones, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma
Funny thing about Black families – no matter what region of the country you grow up in, there are similarities that seem universal in almost every household. It’s how you can share jokes and experiences with people you’ve just met. It makes us all feel like one big, universal family. That’s the feeling Topaz Jones’ Don’t Go Tellin Your Momma brings. It’s a peek behind the curtain of Black families and that shared familiarity resonates so strongly. The album is loaded with soul and nostalgia, serving as a coming-of-age story for Topaz, but one many of his listeners can relate to. What brings it all home is the warmth and energy that made even the toughest times fun. Don’t Go Tellin Your Momma might be the biggest surprise of 2021, bringing us closer to the normalcy we all crave.
Which albums did we miss? Let us know below in the comment so we can catch up.