It’s the year after the world stood still. People are back outside — for now. And for music fans, live shows and concerts are back on the calendar. Maybe that’s why 2021 has seen so many massive releases. Tyler dropped. Drake dropped. Ye dropped. J. Cole dropped. Nas dropped… a couple times. Kendrick is the only one who seemed to miss the memo.
Two things stand out when looking at REVOLT’s 11 top albums of 2021:
1) The era of short projects appears to be over. Half of them below are hovering around 20 tracks. A couple are pushing even 30.
2) None of the albums below contain wasted space. Every MC maximized just about every bar, every concept, every idea. And perhaps that makes sense. 2020 was an outlier moment in history where everyone was stuck inside and stuck in their own minds. In 2021, these artists had a lot to get off their chest, and they expressed it lovely.
So, without further ado, check out the top 11 rap albums, in no particular order, of 2021 below.
Kanye West — DONDA
It’s safe to say the artist formerly known as Kanye West has mastered the art of the real-time rap album. He began tinkering with the process during The Life Of Pablo by making additional adjustments to the project after its official release, but nowhere near the grandiosity and effectiveness as what he delivered with DONDA. When word spread Ye planned to hold the release event in Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium, most fans assumed they’d hear something close to completion. Instead they were treated to what amounted to mostly stems of the music, and Yeezy masked-up and decked-out in all red doing pushups on a football field. After two more listening events — another in Atlanta and a final in Chicago’s Soldier Field) — the DONDA iterations that followed still looked significantly different than the version currently available on streaming platforms. In a sense, Ye was breaking the mold while making the mold, allowing the world to experience each rough draft.
The outcome was brilliant, though. DONDA features a who’s who of who’s in everyone’s favorite playlists. From Marilyn Manson to DaBaby, from Lil Baby to Baby Keem, from Andre 3000 to The Weeknd—Ye and company brought the best out of everyone enlisted. But the best part is how masterfully he merged religious and secular worlds. “Off The Grid,” for example, is a trap record that praises his creator (“Brought my life out the trench / God, thank God what he did”). “Jail” basks in the pain and angst of a relationship gone so wrong that it nearly encroaches on domestic violence, then circles back to God’s power to save the day (“Guess who’s going to jail tonight? God’s gonna post my bail tonight”). “Jesus Lord” is perhaps the most compelling example of this boundary-pushing amalgamation. The hook moves like an altar call in a Black church (“Tell me if you know someone that needs Jesus Lord”) then features Jay Electronica, The LOX, and Larry Hoover, Jr. (depending on the version). It’s the best kind of jarring because of the music as well as the characters included — one of which is a muslim, and one of which is the son of a notorious incarcerated Chicago gang leader. Ye’s belief in the creator and in himself continues to push past simply pushing the culture. He now pushes the world. DONDA is another triumphant example of the power of faith.
Tyler, The Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost
Tyler, The Creator is the closest to Ye at this point — remixing the wheel each time he drops, touching seemingly all sides of the musical divide, galvanizing often opposing audiences without compromising his artistry. The only difference is that the Odd Future chieftain still radiates joy with every release. Ten years since 2011’s Goblin and he still sounds like he’s having fun. Call Me If You Get Lost is another stellar entry in a stratospheric catalog. Enlisting DJ Drama to host was one of 2021’s most inventive surprises, along with the decision to lean more bar-heavy than previous offerings. Sure, wavyer fare like “SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE” and “WUSYANAME” are still included. But the power of this project is best represented on tracks like “LUMBERJACK” where Tyler brilliantly blends luxury and oppression with “Rolls Royce pull up, Black boy hop out, shout out to my mother and my father didn’t pull out / MSG sell out? Fuck these niggas yap ‘bout, whips on whips my ancestors got they back out.” A similar dichotomy is captured on “MANIFESTO,” which opens with “That ain’t your religion you just following your mammy, she followed your granny, she obeyed master, did y’all even ask her?” Artists live forever by pushing the masses to think deeper into both society and themselves. If not Tyler, then who?
Nas — King’s Disease II
Nas and Hit-Boy have clearly found the Midas touch. 2020’s Kings Disease secured the Queens legend his first GRAMMY win for Best Rap Album. It’s sequel, Kings Disease II has the pseudo-duo well positioned for back-to-back victories. Featuring guest appearances from across music history (Eminem and EMPD on “EPMD 2,” A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and YG on “YKTV,” Charlie Wilson on “No Phony Love,” for example), the project feels more cohesive than its predecessor. Standouts “Brunch On Sundays” featuring Blxst, “Nobody” featuring Lauryn Hill, and “Death Row East” exemplify God’s Son innate ability to bring the mind elevating perspective of a wise sage while remaining as youthful as ever.
J. Cole — The Off-Season
“95 . s o u t h” is a befitting beginning to The Off-Season, J. Cole’s sixth studio release. The track opens with Dipset icon Cam’ron kicking his quintessential brand of Harlem braggadocio and concludes with Lil Jon’s patented super crunk ad-libs. Sandwiched in between are two minutes and four seconds of another pulse-raising J. Cole bar-fest, including possibly the greatest Super Mario Bros. reference of all time: “I be staying out the way, but if the beef do come around / Could put an M right on your head, you’re Luigi brother now.”
Interstate I-95 (hence the title “95 . s o u t h”) is through-line connecting these legends from New York City and Atlanta, respectively — one shot for where Cole grew up (South East) and another for where he blew up (East Coast) — a balance maintained throughout The Off-Season. Where Cole wields his slurred-flow effortlessly on the trapped-out “a m a r i,” on the stirring “c l o s e,” he flips a narrative unpredictable enough to make Nas proud. Perhaps “m y . l i f e” featuring 21 Savage and Morray is the best of both regions as 21 Savage lyrically impresses on a track with Mr. Villematic, and North Carolina’s Morray beautifully covers Pharoahe Monch’s classic hook from “The Life.” The Dreamville co-founder has always been great at bridging gaps—bringing just enough of this and just enough of that while trimming the fat and rarely wasting bars. On The Off-Season, his pen sounds as inspired as ever, reminding the culture that it’s still a Cole world.
T.F. — Skanless Summer
T.F. hasn’t taken a break since his standout feature on scHoolboy Q’s “Tookie Knows II” (off of 2016’s Blank Face LP), dropping his No Hooks mixtape, his Big Moon EP and collaborating with everyone from Maxo Kream to G. Perico to Vince Staples to Westside Gunn. But his 2021 release, Skanless Summer feels like an artistic evolution. Los Angeles production trio Local Astronauts provide the perfect soundscape for T.F.’s controlled aggression and penetrating narratives.
“Spray” featuring Space Monsta, for example, captures the paranoia of riding dirty with blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror. “Took the pigs on a roundtrip, through the whole city, bad bitch riding shotgun, she getting smoked first if she don’t stop yelling,” T.F. spits as if he’s recording the track during an actual high speed chase. “I’m a gymnast with the double back like O Dog from Menace (II Society) when it come to that,” he bum-rushes one track later on “A Wax And O Dog” featuring Bale & Trizz, “… but nigga that’s some old shit like nigga’s banging 4-6 / Throwback every here and there. Still will get your door kicked / Still will make that coke flip.” Both teem with violence and dry humor.
But there’s more than simply carnage in this collection. Sultry arrangements with majestic hooks like “Big Game James” featuring Jay Worthy and Meaku or the title track provide balance to the conversation. Coupled with gripping connoisseur rap tracks like “Michael Myers” or “Miami Nights” and Skanless Summer is an apt reminder of just how many boxes T.F. checks.
Moneybagg Yo — A Gangsta’s Pain: Reloaded
2021 was a year to remember for Moneybagg Yo. His fourth studio album, A Gangsta’s Pain, topped the Billboard 200; selling 110,000 units in its first week, notching his first No. 1 album. But rather than move on to the next project, the Memphis rapper and his Roc Nation/CMG cohorts’ decision to return to the well with A Gangsta’s Pain: Reloaded may have been their shrewdest move yet. The seven additional tracks added to the beginning of the original 22 somehow only elevates the album’s overall replay-ability. “Wat Be Wrong” revels in profound quotables like “You not an opp, you a hater / Stop telling people we beefing” and “It’s kinda crazy, shit be sad but shit be funny / Niggas will call a baby ‘big brother’ if he got some money.” He ably reaches into his DMX bag on “Scorpio,” flipping the beat from “How’s It Going Down” to tell his own twisted entanglement with a woman who remains just out of reach, bearing his soul while cultivating nostalgia. On A Gangsta’s Pain: Reloaded, Moneybagg Yo preserves the magic of the original while pulling from the greats, creating his own completely unique plate.
Mach-Hommy — Pray For Haiti
Griselda fans celebrated when Mach-Hommy and Westside Gunn ended their feud at the tail end of 2020. The result: Hommy’s luxuriously rugged 2021 release Pray For Haiti, executive produced by the FlyGod himself. “It’s crazy what y’all can do with some old Polos and ebonics, mixed with some of that Mach-fonics / Fuck what I did before, it’s about to get demonic,” Hommy kicks on “The 26th Letter.” His gruff octave sounds especially rich over Denny LaFlare’s marching horns. He waxes later on “Makrel Jaxon,” “Thought you was the best on these drums? Meet Ringo / Time to separate the elves from Chris Kringle / The Busta’s from the Charlie Browns and the Dinkos… Mach-Hommy bought a chopper just to iron out the wrinkles,” over ConductorWilliams’ drumless soul samples. Hommy maximizes every opportunity to unleash inventive bars without wasting any space. Along with guest features Keisha Plum (“Folie A Deux”) and Tha God Fahim (“Magnum Band”), Westside Gunn’s top tier taste and nasally ad-libs are sprinkled throughout Pray For Haiti, ushering in a seminal album for fans of connoisseur rap.
Drake — Certified Lover Boy
Another year, another record breaking release for Drizzy Drake. The most dominant rapper of the decade smashed records in 2021 with his sixth studio album, Certified Lover Boy. Released through OVO Sound and Republic Records, CLB mirrors the consistency fans have come to expect from Drake. “Girls Want Girls” featuring Lil Baby infectious bounce and conversation-starting chorus (“…Said you’re a lesbian, girl me too…”) is contagious enough to catch COVID on a socially distant dance floor, while “Knife Talk” featuring Project Pat and 21 Savage embraces classic Memphis energy and loaded with opp-ready quotables (“Type of nigga that can’t look me in the eyes I despise / When I see you better put that fuckin’ pride to the side”). “Way 2 Sexy” featuring Future and Young Thug — with it’s interpolation of Right Said Fred’s 1991 poppy “I’m Too Sexy” — has all the makings of a viral sensation and “Champagne Poetry” marvelously demonstrates Drizzy’s uncanny ability to let audiences into his life. Certified Lover Boy has all the trimmings of what makes Drake great.
Baby Keem — The Melodic Blue
As the old hip hop adage goes, “Half is what you say, and half is the style.” Baby Keem is a rarity in that he’s been knighted with both undeniable distinction and crispy cognizance. In a sea of sounds-similars, his debut album, The Melodic Blue, juts out like the Freedom Tower through it’s off-kilter melodies and ability for delivering common-man conversations in completely uncommon ways. Rappers rap about catching flights out the blue to luxury destinations like Dubai or Turks & Caicos all the time. Baby Keem raps about catching out-the-blue flights to “south africa,” for example. Toss in a couple of appearances from his big cousin Kendrick Lamar (“range brothers” and “family ties”), a Travis Scott collab that embeds itself in the ethos like jagged incense (“durag activity”), an outstanding Don Toliver team-up (“cocoa”) and The Melodic Blue is a signal that the Baby Keem-era is closer than it may appear.
Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning
Isaiah Rashad’s third studio album, The House Is Burning, opens with what feels like a self-reflective meditation. The eerie track is called “Darkseid” and the Top Dawg Entertainment emcee chants, “Whatever gonna keep your nose dry, my nigga, I’m with it. I know it got you froze my nigga, I feel it… Whatever gonna keep your mind blown, my nigga maintain the wheel.” It harkens to the substance abuse challenges Rashad’s weathered over the course of his career. The woozy “Lay Wit Ya” featuring Duke Deuce, for example, feels like a love affair leveling up, but on lean. “Chad” featuring YGTUT flips a classic Pimp C bar (“I wasn’t rapping baby, I would still be riding Mercedes”) into a wavy PSA (“If you pop that pill, remember niggas fold like $100s and $50s). It’s been five years since his last release, 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, so in that sense, The House Is Burning feels like a comeback album, and a stellar one at that.
Nas — Magic
There’s a cool moment at the beginning of “Wu For The Children,” the sixth track on Nas’ 14th studio album, Magic. Over one of Hit-Boy’s slippery soul offerings, God’s Son targets the perception that those on top tend to leave their friends behind. “I don’t see the point with weak sayings like ‘All them niggas on top be blocking,’ or never help, man, stop it,” he says before puncturing victim mentality with scathing darts like “The man in him is bringing the kid in you out.” Lines like “Invest in all my G’s before we rest in peace,” (“Wave Gods” featuring A$AP Rocky and DJ Premier) and “Take my quotes, I’m here to give hope. Start a company from one of my phrases” (“40-16”) reinforces his brand of humble horatio alger energy: No need to hate, you too are already great.
In that sense, Magic is both enlightening and inspiring. It moves closer to Illmatic and The Lost Tapes — sonically much dirtier with less pop appeal than most else in his illustrious catalog — except from a much more realized angle. Nas has officially reached the fruits of his promise and, fortunately, his approach to aspirational rap never veers toward pretension.
Sure, there are a gaggle of crypto-billionaire bars throughout, but the crux of every conversation is defined by his flawless storytelling and innate ability to weave in Black history, rap history, consciousness, community awareness, book recommendations, immaculate metaphors, and everything else 180 degrees away from stock excess. The commentary’s gravity is tilted grossly in favor of helping the populace see there are better options, rather than simply sipping spherical ice cubes while giggling at on the hoi polloi.
Rap often sounds like marketing — musical commercials. Certainly Mr. Jones has more than enough in his portfolio to market if he so chose to. And even with that, instead, somehow Magic lands more like something you’d lean on as part of a future spiritual practice. “Before I make a move, I think about it karmically. Everything come back like a boomerang,” he raps on “Dedicated,” this project’s closer. Nas is much more than in the zone, here. He’s at peace. God’s Son, indeed.