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.