The first year of a new decade is normally a cause for celebration and a timestamp for new beginnings, however, in 2020, the good vibes that come with a new calendar year were replaced with fear, uncertainty and paranoia in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whole industries were shut down, lockdowns and quarantines were put into effect and as a result, the music industry took a big hit with many artists unable to record or tour. But that didn’t stop the music, as a succession of high-profile releases gave listeners a mental vacation from the madness around us.
While the COVID-19 pandemic remains a pressing issue and a danger to society, it appears as if we’ve gotten pass the worst, as the world continues to slowly regain some semblance of normalcy. In light of the loosening of restrictions, a number of artists who intended to release albums last year, but were deterred, are ready to come out of hibernation. With all of these creative juices flowing as we enter 2021, it’s primed to be a watershed year in music, particularly hip hop and R&B, as many of the biggest names and brightest upstarts in both genres are preparing or putting the finishing touches on albums that their listeners are clamoring for.
As we continue to get into the swing of this year, check out 11 of the most anticipated albums that the world is waiting to hear in 2021.
1. Rihanna, TBD
We’ve seen this movie before. You know, the one where the international icon, diva, and sex symbol drops a career-defining album; and takes time away from her craft to pursue other interest only to up the ante — creatively and conceptually — yet again. In the starring role was Janet Jackson, who followed up her record-breaking 1993 opus, Janet, with the sublime masterpiece, Velvet Rope, four years later in 1997. While it’s yet to be seen whether Rihanna’s long-awaited predecessor to her monstrous 2016 release, ANTI, will have a similar impact, it’s safe to say that like Janet at the time, Rihanna has the juice, as well as the opportunity to crystalize herself in the upper echelon of female performers to date.
That said, Rihanna has been pretty preoccupied with building her empire, which includes the wildly successful brands Fenty Beauty, Savage x Fenty and FENTY to really press the issue. And being that the five-year anniversary of ANTI falls in late January, that would certainly be an appropriate day and way to celebrate her landmark album by giving the people what they want.
2. Kendrick Lamar, TBD
Nearly four years removed from releasing his last album, DAMN., which earned him the honor of becoming the first rap artist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Kendrick Lamar continues to keep the world at full attention for his next move. His role as executive producer of Marvel’s Black Panther soundtrack in 2018 spawned masterful efforts such as “All the Stars,” his chart-topping duet with TDE labelmate SZA. However, over the past two years, the kid from Compton has been off the grid, save for the rare guest spot, like his recent appearance on Busta Rhymes’ E.L.E. 2 cut “Look Over Your Shoulder.”
Reports of planned festival dates at Glastonbury and Bilbao BBK being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year got the rumor mill going that a new body of work from K. Dot was on its way. But, we have yet to get an official announcement, let alone a single, from the man himself. Yet, the occasional soundbite alluding to new material or sightings of him filming footage possibly intended for a music video is enough to give fans hope that Kung Fu Kenny will be making his grand return in short order.
3. Cardi B, TBD
Having proven herself to be one of the most bankable stars in all of music, Cardi B is now on the quest for icon status, steadily building a track record for excellence with every movie appearance, clothing collaboration, or exchange with political pundits. Simply put, at this juncture, she’s as dominant and entertaining an artist as there is on the market, with her laundry list of show-stealing guest spots alongside the biggest stars across various genres over the past few years keeping her name, voice, and face in heavy rotation.
While the occasional blowups between herself and husband/Migos member Offset creates fodder for the tabloids and the gossip-mongers, it was “W.A.P.,” her massive raunchy collaboration with Megan Thee Stallion, that made the biggest headlines in 2020, topping the charts and sparking a viral craze, as well as heated debates around sexuality and empowerment. And with a worldview that belies the initial perceptions of her having been put on display, there’s no telling what conceptual leaps we can expect from Cardi’s next release. But, what we do know is that the world will be waiting.
4. Drake, Certified Lover Boy
After closing out a dominant decade that saw him become the face of music, even a pandemic couldn’t stop Drake, who added another chart-topper to his resume with the release of The Dark Lane Demo Tapes. While that project received a warm reception and considerable amount of fanfare, it was solely intended to tide fans clamoring for his sixth official studio album, Certified Lover Boy, which the OVO overlord announced in August with the release of the Lil Durk-assisted smash, “Laugh Now Cry Later.”
Initially reported to drop before by year’s end, an ACL injury suffered in October sidelined Drizzy and put the rollout for Certified Lover Boy on hold until further notice. However, Drake ultimately scheduled the album for a January 2021 release, but remained mum on any further details regarding its release including its features or the creative direction he’ll be going in. Yet, if the album title is any indication, there should be an ample amount of R&B ballads and bars of seduction to choose from. It’s also safe to say that Certified Lover Boy will carry on his tradition of crafting albums that control the pulse of the culture.
5. J. Cole, The Fall Off
Despite being married with two children, J. Cole has built a reputation for being the ultimate tease. Releasing his last solo set, KOD, in 2018, the kid from Dreamville ended the album with the closing cut, “1985 (Intro to The Fall Off),” alluding to a conceptual album titled The Fall Off being stashed in the vault. Yet, after two full years, a hit single (“Middle Child”), and a compilation release (Revenge of the Dreamers III), the arrival of The Fall Off remains impending, with little to no word about its whereabouts from Cole or his label.
In 2020, the tide began to turn beginning with “Snow on Tha Bluff” released in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and racial tensions throughout the country. While that cut would garner a barbed rebuttal from rapper Noname, it was soon followed by a pair of impromptu releases, “The Climb Back” and “Lion King on Ice,” both of which regenerated the uproar of anticipation for The Fall Off. And if Cole’s recent social media posts are any indicator, this year will be an eventful one filled with a number of highlights from rap’s favorite Tar Heel.
6. Travis Scott, Utopia
Many artists of today place an intense amount of focus on branding themselves, but in the case of Travis Scott, he’s all but evolved into a brand himself. His third studio album, Astroworld, increased his appeal to new heights, as did JackBoys, his compilation showcasing his label’s stable of talent. But, it was his success outside of the booth that spoke to his influence. From wildly successful brand collaborations with Playstation, McDonald’s, Twitch, and other entities, Scott emerged as the ultimate pitchman these past two years.
But, that doesn’t mean he’s been hard to find on the musical front with a succession of chart-topping singles including “Highest in the Room,” “Franchise,” and his Kid Cudi collaboration, “The Scotts,” in constant rotation. Having confirmed his arrival as a bonafide megastar and curator with the ability to consistently curate cohesive longplayers, his forthcoming album, Utopia, which is slated to include contributions from Don Toliver, Future, Roddy Ricch, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Young Thug, is slated to be one of the year’s biggest highlights in music.
7. SZA, TBD
Nearly four years removed from captivating listeners with her multi-platinum Grammy-nominated debut, Ctrl, SZA has evolved from a promising upstart to one of the leading women in modern R&B. However, aside from “All the Stars” — her blockbuster duet alongside Kendrick Lamar — and other contributions to the Black Panther soundtrack, she’s largely been A.W.O.L., occasionally popping up on tracks by megastars like The Weeknd, and Megan Thee Stallion.
According to the songstress, her absence has been a byproduct of friction between herself and her label/ management company TDE, which she accused of withholding new material from being released, a gripe she’s had in past years prior to the success of Ctrl. While that beef went public, tempers have since cooled and both parties appear to be back on solid ground with SZA unleashing the loosies, “Hit Different” and “Good Days” that closed out last year. This indicates that releasing her new album — slated to include appearances by Post Malone, Justin Timberlake, Brockhampton, and Jack Antonoff — is a top priority for her herself and TDE in 2021.
8. Tierra Whack, TBD
Every now and then, a new artist comes from out of nowhere with a project that mints them as a visionary and puts them in a class of their own. One of the more recent examples of this occurrence is when Philly rep Tierra Whack took the music world by surprise with her 2018 release, Whack World, a collection of one-minute songs accompanied by short-films for each song. The approach was a revolutionary one and garnered Whack universal acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for Best Music Video for “Mumbo Jumbo,” serving as further evidence of her upside as a creative.
After collaborating with Flying Lotus and crushing the festival circuit in 2019, she got back to business this past year, popping up on songs by Lil Yachty (“T.D”), Melanie Martinez (“Copy Cat”), and Alicia Keys (“Me x 7”). Liberating her first solo single in over a year, “Dora,” and appearing in the 2020 Apple holiday commercial “The Magic of Mini” that featured two additional new singles, “Peppers and Onions” and “feel good,” Whack has all the momentum behind her to craft a solo set that elevates her from promising newcomer to superstardom.
9. Ari Lennox, TBD
Ari Lennox has been regarded as a uniquely talented vocalist since first breaking onto the scene in 2015. But, the release of her long-awaited debut album, Shea Butter Baby, in 2019 gave the star her first opportunity to truly spread her wings. Earning widespread acclaim and producing two gold singles in “BMO” and the album’s J. Cole-assisted title-track, Shea Butter Baby was praised as a watershed moment for pure vocalists with Lennox placed at the forefront of the genre’s current renaissance.
Since the album’s release, she has kept her foot on the pedal with frequent collaborations alongside acts like Kiana Ledé, Skip Marley, 6lack, and Spillage Village; coinciding with the occasional quickstrike drops “Bussit,” “Chocolate Pomegranate,” and “Cognac Eyes.” However, with her quirky, yet engaging, personality raising her Q-Rating among casual fans, and her recent releases serving as a reminder of her excellence, Lennox is primed to strike with a new album while the iron is hot and give us another helping a silky, sensual vibes.
10. Meek Mill, TBD
Surviving the criminal justice system, public spats with rivals, and personal turmoil, Meek Mill came up clean on the other side of adversity with his 2018 release, Championships, which debuted atop the Billboard charts and earned a Grammy award nomination for Best Rap Album. Since then, Meek has stayed active on all fronts, focusing his efforts on prison reform initiatives while collaborating with superstars and up-and-comers alike.
In addition to lamenting the ills of the current social and political climate with the single “Otherside of America,” the Dreamchaser unleashed his four-song EP, Quarantine Pack, featuring appearances from Lil Durk, Vory, and 42 Dugg, last November. That stimulus package, and “Letter to Nipsey” — Meek’s tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle — are indicative of the rapper’s transition into “album mode.”
11. Noname, Factory Baby
It feels like it’s been a lifetime since Noname unveiled her acclaimed debut, Room 25, back in 2018. But, that has as much to do with how much the Chicagoan has done in so little time. From forming the supergroup Ghetto Sage with fellow Chi-Town natives Saba and Smino in 2019 to launching a book club focused on highlighting Black writers and educating the Black community this past year, Noname has stayed true to her grassroots community efforts and activism, sporadically putting music on the back burner and even contemplating her future as a recording artist.
However, the rapper has also expressed a desire to share her music with that same community, announcing the title of her forthcoming sophomore album, Factory Baby, in 2019 in a Instagram post that’s since been deleted. While the project, originally intended to be released in 2020, was met by delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the social unrest that swept the country that year, Noname made a big splash with the release of “Song 33,” a reply to what many perceived as a subliminal shot levied by J. Cole on his own track, “Snow on tha Bluff.” Her masterfully sly retort was well-received, creating more buzz around her vaulted sophomore record, and with all that’s going on in the world today, she’ll surely have more than enough source material to draw from.