When it comes to end of the year music lists, albums, songs, and artists tend to get the majority of the flowers. These highlighted parties would be simply nonexistent without the producers that propel them.
In 2021, top tier production came from an array of sonic technicians. They ranged from masters of a singular style to crafty chameleons; veterans to newcomers; and 808 synth whisperers to live instrumental composers. With an ever evolving sphere of genre and sound those who stood out found their niche and excelled at it. They either made individual songs for many artists or a group of songs to help make up the sound of an album. Needless to say they all deserve to be highlighted on their own terms.
Here is our list of all of the best producers of the year 2021.
A whole self-titled album for Vince Staples is the immediate draw to Kenny Beats year. Kenny has become known specifically for his adaptability for a variety of artists and sounds through his Youtube show The Cave. Through his collaboration with the Long Beach MC, Kenny helped bring Vince into an entirely new spacial soundscape. Kenny also produced a full album named CRAWLER for alternative band IDLES while continuing to create tracks with one of the widest arrays of artists of anyone in the game. A shortened list includes Zach Fox, Remi Wolf, Paris Texas, Deb Never, Isaiah Rashad, and Remble.
New Jersey producer and MC JWords has become a sensei of synths and slick deliverer of sparse yet driving drums. With the two projects she helped produce for herself and other MCs Nappy Nina and Maassai in 2021, it’s impossible to not hear her distinct sonic perspective. There is no one in the game fusing dance music and boom bap quite as organically.
Veteran producer DJ Muggs dropped seven projects in 2021. With his influence reverberating back to the early ’90s, it is almost unfathomable the level of hunger and drive that goes into making not just seven projects in 2021, but seven projects each with their own merit and style. How Muggs even finds this many samples to flip with precision is mind boggling. No producer in the game is reinventing new pockets as consistently as Muggs. The only thing to do with Muggs 2021 catalogue is to revel at its mastery.
Sage Elsesser, aka Navy Blue, stood out among the pack. He has produced a number of albums in 2021, with his standout work coming on his own album, Navy’s Reprise, and the project Half God with New York MC Wiki. Both offerings show an adept ability in creating texture. Blue’s sample chops and sequences each feel like a different piece of clothing. Though his style feels like a direct descendant of his predecessors, he seems to operate the boards with a unique emotive state and touch.
Is there a more diabolical crew than Lil Nas X and production duo Take A Daytrip? Handling most of the production on Lil Nas X’s album MONTERO Denzel Baptiste and David Biral took the rapper’s sound to new heights and new levels of experimentation. Daytrip was also able to fit in production on one of the most enthralling pieces of music dropped this year — on the track “Life Is Not The Same” by James Blake. As soon as their producer tag enters the soundscape the song becomes a masterclass in atmospheric wonder.
Two standout beats for Drake — “Wants and Needs” and “7 am on Bridle Path” — as well as co-production on “family ties” by Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar is only the tip of the iceberg of veteran producer Cardo’s 2021 output. Maybe his most impressive set of instrumentals came from his collaborative albums Into The Late Night with indie darling Larry June and Another Day Another Dollar with Detroit MC Payroll Giovanni. While Cardo has gone well beyond his signature synths and popping percussion it’s always sweet to be able to hear him do full albums with rappers who can rhyme over his core sound.
One of the most under appreciated production years has come from Atlanta based producer Tasha Catour. Her ability to effortlessly maneuver from rap to R&B production hit its peak level in 2021. Catour’s smooth yet rolling arranging on tracks for Asiahn and Ann Marie proved her knack for structuring. Then with production for Scotty Atl on his Trappin Gold tape and Lil Tecca via the Space Jam: A New Legacy soundtrack, Catour solidified her mastery of the bounce.
Helping Nas win his first Grammy in 2020 with his album King’s Disease wasn’t enough for producer Hit-Boy. He came right back in 2021 with the follow up, King’s Disease II, to very similar acclaim. Helping Big Sean craft his much anticipated follow up to his classic mixtape Detroit in 2020 also wasn’t enough for Hit-Boy. So he followed up in 2021 with their mixtape What You Expect. To add to this, Hit executive produced the Judas and The Black Messiah soundtrack featuring everyone from JAY-Z to Nipsey Hussle to G Herbo. Then, on top of all of this, some of the producer’s most impressive work of the past year has come from one offs for artists like Maxo Kream, Terrace Martin, Don Toliver, and Babyface Ray.
Has anyone worked harder in 2021 than Mike Dean? Under his own name he produced his second “psychedelic symphony” in 4:22 and a live album, Echoplex. Each project reproved the sheer sonic brilliance of the longtime producer and engineer. Also, most notably, was Dean’s work all over Kanye’s DONDA album, which required reworks upon reworks as the album’s creation process moved locations during its pre-release stadium tour. This would be more than enough alone to qualify him for this list yet he still handled heavy production on Don Toliver’s album Life of a DON, AJ Mitchell’s album SKYVIEW, and also garnered credits for artists from Swedish House Mafia to Bankroll Freddie to iann dior.
Dom Maker has maybe the sneakiest impressive range of a producer in 2021. His crowning achievement was handling the majority of production on the, at times, truly stunning James Blake album Friends That Break Your Heart. However, Maker also helped arrange tracks for the likes of Maxo Kream, Tony Seltzer, Dave, Mustafa, Slowthai, and Key! The breadth of his scope from rap to folk to pop to grime is one of a true adapter.
The certified legend continued his run of standout rap album production with projects for Boldy James and Armand Hammer in 2021. Alchemist should receive as much credit for his sample-weaving wizardry as he does for his adaptability. His beats uplift the gloomy imagery of Boldy James as much as they propel the cerebral eloquence of Elucid and Billy Woods. Add credits for Conway The Machine, Zach Fox, Cypress Hill, Pink Siifu, and Earl Sweatshirt to the mix and you get another banner level year for The Chemist.
Dallas bred producer Kal Banx produced the core of Isaiah Rashad’s standout 2021 album The House Is Burning. Banx helped craft the symmetry between Rashad’s Tennessee bounce and his Texas gutter. What blossomed from this was a seamless display of southern rap lineage strewn throughout the project. The TDE signed producer also executed a range of standout songs in 2021 for the likes of Maxo Kream, Smino, and Jorja Smith.
The Hyundai Mercury Prize is awarded to the artist with the best album of each year out of the UK. For this year the prize was given to Arlo Parks for her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams. The producer at the helm of the album was upstate New York-bred instrumental crafter Gianluca Buccelatti. Buccelatti previously described his incredibly simple setup for the album’s creation as, “a living room setup (with) HS8 speakers, a two octave Midi keyboard, a little mpc usb thing, a guitar, a bass, and a microphone into a two channel preamp.” The album is a masterclass of getting sleek live instrumental variation out of bare bones resources. Arlo and Gianluca play off each other’s strengths with organic ease as he lifts her highly poetic lyrics with smooth lyrical basslines and impeccably finessed percussion.
The beats coming out of the Memphis rap scene in recent years have been some of the best. In 2021, they got even better and many of the most enticing were crafted by producer Bandplay. Bandplay acts as the in-house producer for Young Dolph’s label Paper Route Empire, thus he produced an overwhelming majority of the songs on the label’s three most significant drops of 2021: Dum and Dummer 2 by Young Dolph and Key Glock; Paper Route iLLUMINATi by Young Dolph and Paper Route Empire; and Yellow Tape 2 by Key Glock. All three albums have some of the hardest hitting and car friendly beats of the year. Bandplay also produced a plethora of burgeoning Memphis rapper Big Scarr’s songs in 2021 and those beats are equally impressive.
Ghanaian producer GuiltyBeatz is responsible for the backing sounds of four out of the five songs on Tems’ breakout EP, If Orange Was A Place. Guilty’s production on these songs presents one of music’s most exciting new singers at all the sweet spots of her most comfortable pockets. Guilty’s production in 2021 also expanded to the majority of the tracks on UK MC Shaybo’s album Queen of the South as well as production for the likes of Jorja Smith, YCee, and Ladipoe. For production styles ranging from Amapiano and Afrobeats to Drill and Alté, Guilty provided some of 2021’s most intriguing sounds.
One of the great rap albums of 2021 was Tyler, the Creator’s DJ Drama assisted Call Me If You Get Lost. As much as his lyrical work should be praised, where the album truly catapults itself is within Tyler’s rounded and potent production. The arrangements range from driving and rumbling drum sequences to ethereal and floating chord structures. In addition to producing for himself, Tyler composed instrumentals for his collaborations with Snoh Aalegra and Maxo Kream.
There is no producer in the game crafting R&B instrumentals like Dernst Emile II aka D’Mile. In 2020 D’Mile won the Grammy for Song of the Year for his work on “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. He followed that up in 2021 by winning the Oscar for Best Song for his work on “Fight for You” by H.E.R from the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack. D’Mile also helped produce the majority of the songs on albums by India Shawn and Joyce Wrice in 2021 and he even ended the year co-producing most of Silk Sonic’s project, An Evening With Silk Sonic. D’Mile’s 2021 production credits knew no limits and his arrangements struck the perfect balance of intricate yet free.
Apart from producing three standout tracks on Adele’s album 30, North London producer Inflo produced the majority of three other top tier albums in 2021 (Sometimes I Might Be Introvert by Little Simz, Mother by Cleo Sol, and Nine by Sault). Each project has its own specific tone and instrumentation to cater to the strengths of it’s vocalist. Inflo can go from momentous and extravagant to restrained and simple with ease. He has proved this range tenfold in 2021 and has had the best year of his career thus far.
Honorable Mentions: Johan Lennox, Kaelin Ellis, Wondagurl, Jonah Christian, Groove, Cash Cobain, Frank Dukes, and Pierre Bourne
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast that highlights the top tier work of other writers.
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