Getting through the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic is a cause for celebration itself. As music experienced a brief resurgence with festivals and smaller tours, artists like Isaiah Rashad, J. Cole, Lorde, Tyler, the Creator and Vince Staples also made their triumphant return with their well-received albums The House Is Burning, The Off-Season, Solar Power, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, and Vince Staples. It would be a tragedy if we failed to highlight the hot debate of Kanye West‘s DONDA versus Drake‘s Certified Lover Boy, which were released within five days of each other and became the world’s talking point for months afterward.
2021 also greeted us with diverse releases from both growing and all-time favorites, including pgLang star Baby Keem with The Melodic Blue, Little Simz with Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Paris Texas with Red Hand Akimbo, Snoh Aalegra with TEMPORARY HIGHS IN THE VIOLET SKIES, New Gen: Spring 2021 contender Tems with If Orange Was A Place and much more.
To cap it off, we have a selection of honorable mentions, namely Don Toliver‘s Life of a DON, James Blake‘s Friends That Break Your Heart, Silk Sonic‘s An Evening With Silk Sonic, Summer Walker‘s Still Over It and Young Thug‘s Punk. HYPEBEAST would also like to note that while the likes of Roddy Ricch, Mach-Hommy and newcomer Nardo Wick dropped stellar projects towards the end of the year, more time is needed to fully appreciate the albums.
Without further ado, HYPEBEAST presents the 15 best music projects of 2021.
Baby Keem – The Melodic Blue
Upon releasing The Melodic Blue, Baby Keem made it evident that his popularity was based on more than just his familial association with Kendrick Lamar. The pgLang artist is evidently growing into his own, using his DIE FOR MY BITCH follow up to further hone his technical skill as both a rapper and a lyricist. The Melodic Blue is filled with catchy (and witty, if you’re fast enough to pick them up) patterns delivered over hard-hitting production, and if you tune out even just for a second, you might miss out on the genius of Baby Keem.
Drake – Certified Lover Boy
It goes without saying that any Drake release is likely to remain unparalleled. After years of built-up anticipation, many were met with the forlorn loverboy in the Toronto rapper’s sixth studio album. Having described the record as “a combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth,” the music overlord amplifies his emotional honesty and confidence. And in typical Drake fashion, CLB boasts a star-studded affair that includes A-listers like JAY-Z, Kid Cudi, Future, Young Thug, and Giveon to name a few. But like always, Drake stays on top as he accelerates to a level only very few can achieve.
Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning
Isaiah Rashad’s THE HOUSE IS BURNING was undeniably one of the biggest and most exciting comebacks of the year. Granted, it was mainly because it was his first full-length effort since 2016, but most importantly, he had returned from rehab and survived the chaos of his life post-The Sun’s Tirade. The TDE staple is so much more than his trauma, but he works through it tirelessly and tediously, and fully accepts it on this Kenny Beats-produced record. The house may now be nothing but ashes swept away by the wind, and Rashad may not have come out unscathed, but he sure as hell is alive and kicking.
J Cole – The Off-Season
J. Cole’s The Off-Season returns to HYPEBEAST’s Best Projects list for the second time this year. The 12-track album lived up to its hype as one of 2021’s most anticipated records, with the Dreamville head sounding refreshed and hungrier than ever. Cole is supported by super producers such as Timbaland, Boi-1da and T-Minus and special guests like 21 Savage, Bas and Lil Baby, who all act as cushions to further elevate the Fayetteville artist’s sharp agenda and pull him into the right headspace for The Fall Off.
Kanye West – DONDA
Over a year since its initial announcement and three massive listening parties later, it felt like a fever dream when the artist formerly known as Kanye West officially released DONDA on streaming platforms. The two-hour record was well worth the wait, however, as DONDA proved to be his most personal and transitional album so far, with themes of family, loss and spirituality interweaved with the teachings of the late Dr. Donda West. Propped by a strong cast of supporting artists like JAY-Z, Pusha T, Kid Cudi, the late Pop Smoke and even controversial figures Marilyn Manson, Chris Brown and DaBaby, Ye dissects his highly-publicized life experiences into an album that will forever be remembered.
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
While Little Simz sometimes might be an introvert, she certainly doesn’t shy away from embracing her artistic power. As a Black woman in a male-dominated industry, Simz wants you to know her presence will always hold weight. She assures her ego takes a seat but holds no reservations with her sharp lyricism, quick deliveries, and lush production. Transcending the glitz and glamour of her successes are intimate questions about self-worth and desires for validation. Anchored with potent emotional intelligence, Simz’s project is an apt display of her deepest sense of self.
Lorde – Solar Power
Despite already being away for four years, Lorde still longed to escape into an endless summer on her Melodrama followup, Solar Power. Plucked guitar strings, full harmonies, warm shakers and Jack Antonoff’s production create the album’s balmy disposition and makes it the polar opposite of its predecessor, however the 25-year-old is as tuned-in to her inner thoughts as ever. Sprinkled throughout the 12-track record are her reflections and musings as someone whose career kicked off at only 16, giving her the advantage to pen more mature lyricism while still dreading the same woes of her Millenial and Gen-Z cohorts.
Maxo Kream – WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
Maxo Kream has yet to disappoint. The Houston MC’s third studio album WEIGHT OF THE WORLD went largely underappreciated despite its cohesive production and stellar features from heavyweights like A$AP Rocky, Freddie Gibbs, Tyler, The Creator, and Don Toliver. With his macabre sense of humor, braggadocious hooks, and signature flow, Kream effortlessly weaves in his victory laps with darker themes of personal struggles and trauma. His ability to elevate the standard he set with his previous releases is proof of the huge strides he’s made since his SoundCloud days.
Paris Texas – Red Hand Akimbo
Paris Texas breathed in new life to “rap rock” with Red Hand Akimbo, a five-track EP following their triumphant BOY ANONYMOUS project. The Los Angeles-based duo, composed of Louie Pastel and Felix, delivered a dynamic synthesis of just what exactly they envisioned their sound to be, rather than what it’s meant as. Piecing together gritty guitars with upbeat, melodic bars and self-aware lyricism — “N****s thought I was Jean / They thought I was Keem, the f*ck do you mean? / N****s can’t tell if it’s rock / Can’t tell if it’s rap, I walk in between” — Paris Texas dives in head first, disregards all the rules and only goes wherever their artistry leads them.
Snoh Aalegra – TEMPORARY HIGHS IN THE VIOLET SKIES
Snoh Aalegra continues to be unmatched. Having made a steady comeback this year with TEMPORARY HIGHS IN THE VIOLET SKIES, the R&B songstress shows no signs of slowing down. Aalegra bares it all with dreamy vocals and candor lyricism alongside a fiery collaborative lineup ranging from the Neptunes to Tyler, the Creator, to No I.D. Better yet, the full-length effort taps into greater potential by not conforming to the typical Trap trends R&B generally emulates. Her zeal and experimentation of shifting sounds ultimately remind listeners why they were initially drawn to the genre.
Still Woozy – If This Isn’t Nice, I Don’t Know What Is
Sven Gamsky, aka Still Woozy, finally reached his debut milestone with If This Isn’t Nice, I Don’t Know What Is this year. After slowly sprinkling back-to-back hit singles, the multi-hyphenate delivered his long-awaited solo breakthrough which was both infectious and full of charm. Be it the genre-bending sounds, the idiosyncrasies behind his sublime production, or the sonic playground that fuses psychedelic pop, hip-hop, indie rock, and dance-funk into some childlike wonder, Sven has us still feeling woozy with all of this dazzle and excitement.
Tems – If Orange Was A Place
Rarely do EPs make the cut, but such isn’t the case for Tems’ follow-up project If Orange Was A Place. With just five tracks, the Nigerian artist’s joint effort alongside talented producer GuiltyBeatz is enough to keep listeners tuned into her distinctive sound. The “Essence”-star impressively rides the wave of her growing success by pushing the boundaries of afrobeats and alté, with Brent Faiyaz’s sole feature adding even more depth to the record’s appeal. As she continues to build momentum, Tems has offered a promising lens into what her potential full-length debut album could sound like.
Terrace Martin – DRONES
Terrace Martin is often an unsung hero behind some of the world’s favorite hits. Best known for his work on To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city, the prolific multi-instrumentalist has now made another triumphant mark with DRONES. Featuring a tasteful blend of jazzy, hip-hop, soul, and funk embellishments, each track stands as a masterpiece on its own. The project aptly created a space for industry peers like Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Smino, Leon Bridges, Robert Glasper, and many more to come together, continuously growing Martin’s discography and solidifying himself as one of the greatest ever to do it.
Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
A decade after dropping GOBLIN, it’s evident that Tyler, the Creator has widely expanded his horizons, and he urges his listeners to do the same with CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST. The 16-track record, hosted by one of his dream collaborators, DJ Drama, is an energetic fusion of his ever-evolving skills and discography so far, and is tightly packed with the techniques that made predecessors WOLF, Flower Boy and IGOR some of the most outstanding releases in modern music history. Mr. Baudelaire strikes the perfect balance between experimentation and staying true to your roots, crafting a sonic love letter that tells listeners he’s growing alongside them, too.
Vince Staples – Vince Staples
Many have kept a watchful eye on Vince Staples since he cemented his status as one of the scene’s most formidable talents. Not because they were fearful, but because fans were eager for him to shatter expectations. With his eponymous fourth album that bears a cover art of his face, the Long Beach rapper stands front and center of his story. What lies behind heavy 808s, hi-hat rolls, and solid production entirely helmed by mastermind Kenny Beats, are profound themes of introspection, survival, and vulnerability. Staples strikes gold with his subdued but versatile approach, bringing a matured outlook that adds greater complexity to his already impressive repertoire.