Our list of the best albums of 2021 features everything from a mid-career masterpiece that dropped in January to a modern-day classic that released in November.
From Drake to Adele to Kanye West, 2021 was the year of the powerhouse album. These were the albums that when they dropped the world stopped. And any real music fan could have predicted development. Last year, COVID-19 put a pause on live concerts so the heavyweights put a pause on the biggest releases.
But, here’s the thing: biggest doesn’t always mean best. And the best, most memorable music of the year came from gifted artists who probably won’t be selling out stadiums anytime soon. Okayplayer’s best albums of 2021 features very few of the powerhouses releases that dominated mainstream coverage. (In fact, there’s probably only one on our list.) And that’s OK because music came at a steady drip in 2021. Our list of the best albums of 2021 features music from throughout the year, from a mid-career masterpiece that dropped in January to a modern-day classic that literally dropped last month.
Here are Okayplayer’ 21 best albums of 2021.
21. Summer Walker — Still Over It
No stone is left unturned on Still Over It. Lyrically, Summer Walker is honest — even a bit harsh. There’s also an air of reflection that can be heard throughout the album. She’s most authentic on tracks that are reflective of the state of modern R&B, including “No Love,” “Switch A Nigga Out,” “Reciprocate,” and “Unloyal.” She also experiments on “Ex For a Reason” and “Dat Right There,” which are sneaky bops that have pop elements. — Robyn Mowatt
20. 42 Dugg — Free Dem Boyz
Coated in bloodthirsty menace, flamboyant flexes, and tattooed tears, 42 Dugg’s Free Dem Boyz is a lucid look at the ties that bind the Detroit rapper. It’s also a pretty damn good rap album. Spanning 19 songs, the project sees Dugg oscillate between raspy melodies and straightforward Detroit street raps for songs that range from earnest reflection (“Free Merey”) to drop-top celebrations (“4 Da Gang”). Plain-spoken and frank, Dugg sifts through casual tales of drug dealing, label politics, and family ties without any context or segues to speak of. This adds an immediate, endlessly personal effect to his songs, which usually spill out like letters to jailed homies who are able to fill the gaps themselves. — Peter A. Berry
19. BADBADNOTGOOD — Talk Memory
Sprawling, intense, and unapologetically challenging, Talk Memory, the fourth studio album from BADBADNOTGOOD, is arguably the group’s most sophisticated exploration of jazz as both a genre and the threads between them. Commencing with the nine-minute epic, “Signal From The Noise,” the four-piece cracks the door open with fuzzed-out guitar work, giving way to a contemplative piano melody that cuts through with a slithering sax line that simply dissipates. The whirl of horns returns on “Unfolding (Momentum 73),” a cosmic suite anchored by ambient maestro Laraaji. On “City of Mirrors,” the group calls up revered Brazilian string specialist Arthur Verocai, who makes his first of four appearances on Talk Memory with a warm and wide orchestral arrangement. In the closing movement of Talk Memory, Brandee Younger and Terrace Martin enter the fold for a transcendent finale, dissolving a high-octane composition in searing sax lines and tender flutters of harp. At a time when agnosticism is the prevailing approach amongst elite players hoping to avoid tired motifs, BADBADNOTGOOD proudly salutes the giants and presents a their own home-brewed strain of growling, sneering, and deceptively psychedelic fusion. — Zo
18. Willow — Lately I Feel Everything
Amidst 2021’s pop punk resurgence, WILLOW’s album stood front and center. Channeling some of her mother Jada’s metal roots, and combining that with angst-filled sticky melodies translated into her most effective pocket she’s found in her music thus far. The potent and punchy lead single “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l” shows WILLOW’s deft hand at creating a vocal build but is only the tip of the iceberg. WILLOW and producer Tyler Cole crafted moments from the soft-loud plea for critique in “naïve” to the aggressive ballad of “Lipstick” to the Tierra Whack assisted relationship anxiety anthem “XTRA” which all rise to the occasion. Each song is individually compelling yet still lucidly tied to the album’s musical spine. WILLOW’s rumination on her emotional processing through the lens of sharp guitar strums and explosive drum patterns made us all want to belt in our cars and jump around in a festival field. — Miki Hellerbach
17. Armand Hammer — Haram
When Alchemist collaborates he dominates — the coverage, the conversation, and often the musical direction. So it was refreshing to see the legendary producer willingly play the background. Haram, the brilliant album from mythical underground rap duo Armand Hammer (Elucid and billy woods) is unapologetically an Armand Hammer album: uncompromising, dense, expertly-crafted, with a splash of hope. Oh, and like all Armand Hammer projects, Haram is a rhymers album, one that rewards repeated listening. You need time to decode with this one. As Elucid succinctly told us back in March, “This is a constant flow of information good, bad, indifferent, love that, hate it, turned off by it, turned on by it, it’s all there and you do what you want with it.”
16. Tinashe — 333
She can see the future. Two years since the release of Songs for You, Tinashe maintains her pop-centric nature with high vibrations on her fifth album, 333. With themes of spiritual awakenings and alternate realities through promo featuring VR, Tinashe stands well into her metaphysical power through self-exploration. Still, there’s room for good fun as Tinashe’s breezy sonics on 333 maintain the influence of her California upbringing on lead singles “Bouncin” and “Pasadena” featuring Buddy. Titled after the singer’s life path number, 333 gives listeners the space to expand their 3D dimensions. — Jaelani Turner-Williams
15. Tems — If Orange Was A Place
Tems singing “You don’t need no other body” on the hook of Wizkid’s breakout “Essence” resounded throughout the world like an echo during the summer of 2021. It was only right that she built off that momentum with a project of her own. Tems’ If Orange Was A Place is only five tracks but grabs ears like a loving grandmother. Tems now signature rasp glides over GuiltyBeatz and Jonah Christian’s production filling each rhythmic pocket with equal parts warmth and finesse. Many have joked online that since Tems sang on the project’s lead single “crazy tings are happening” that “crazy things really started happening.” The phrase is as psychic as it is reflective and evergreen in the current state of the world at which Tems finds herself at the sonic center: a blend of Afrobeats, R&B, and Pop. — MH
14. Mndsgn — Rare Pleasure
Showcasing Mndsgn’s abilities as a vocalist, songwriter, and arranger, Rare Pleasure is a psychedelic and meditative joyride. Fusing funk, jazz, and soul, the album’s 13 tracks seamlessly go into one another, all grounded by Mndsgn’s mantra-like lyrics. From the beautiful, groove-driven “Hope You’re Doin’ Better” — a necessary reminder to pick up the phone and reach out to those we care about — to the calming “Masque,” Mndsgn is affirming in his lyrics, coming across as that one friend who just knows what you need to hear when you need it. — Elijah Watson
13. Moneybagg Yo — A Gangsta’s Pain
With the release of A Gangsta’s Pain, Moneybagg Yo has centered himself amongst the greats to emerge in the newest wave of Southern rap’s domination. Moneybagg manages to narrate a life driven by violence, street affiliation, and vices that all are synonymous with a true gangster’s trappings within their surroundings. From the heavy bass and 808s of lead single “Time Today” to the storytelling of “Wockesha” to the effortless “Certified Neptunes,” A Gangster’s Pain solidified the presence Moneybagg Yo holds as one of hip hop’s brightest stars. — Kia Turner
12. EST Gee — Bigger Than Life or Death
A cocktail of dismissive boasts, nimble flows, and casual death threats, EST Gee made a name for himself through sly, unsparing gangsta rap. Those elements coalesce on Bigger Than Life or Death. From start to finish, Gee unloads bleak tales of murder and menace with sleek wordplay, a writerly eye for specifics and unaffected cool. “I’m a boss, but suit up like a worker, I’m on this on purpose/We slide, I put the cleats aside and wet the field with Jergens,” he snarls on “Make It Even.” He also flexes versatility as he channels everything from New Orleans music (“5500 Degrees” and “Price Tag”) to modern Detroit rap (the Helluva-produced “Run N 2 Me”). — PAB
11. Vince Staples — Vince Staples
Vince Staples became a star by making bold moves. But 2021’s self-titled LP sees the artist withdraw even deeper into himself, furthering the stripped back approach of 2018’s FM via a length that barely passes the 20 minute mark. On standout “Law of Averages” an introspective Vince complains about fame, “’cause everyone I ever known has asked me for a loan.” “Mhm” sees the rapper joke about COVID-19 and how committing robberies means he’s used to wearing a mask. These are random flashes of a subconscious, shared over beats that seem to disintegrate just as the groove gets going. It isn’t as mosh-pit friendly as Staples’ earlier work, sure, but the juxtaposition between the Long Beach rapper’s lax intellect flow and G-funk inflected ear-worms from producer Kenny Beats is compelling. Vince is overthinking from a place of comfort… something we’ve all done a lot of over the last 12 months. — Thomas Hobbs
10. Pinkpantheress — to hell with it
PinkPantheress’ to hell with it is an 18 minute, 10 song project that showcases what makes her such a promising artist — infectious melodies and achingly relatable lyrics, best served over a driving drum and bass beat. So many tracks on to hell with it are like this. The Crystal Waters-sampling “I Must Apologize” (a testament to the fact that any song that samples the classic “Gypsy Woman” is usually — if not always — good), “Passion,” album-ender “Break It Off” — it’s a formula that works so well, PinkPantheress juxtaposing the dance-friendly production with confessional-like lyrics. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself simultaneously crying and dancing while listening to to hell with it. — EW
9. Pink Siifu — GUMBO’!
A shining star of underground rap, Pink Siifu can’t decide if he wants to perform head-banging punk to prompt an insurrection or flip chill jazz samples and promote the meditative qualities of praying. However, after the raw intensity of his previous solo album (2020’s NEGRO), Gumbo’! sees a much more relaxed Siifu, who delivers colorful trap anthems to soundtrack 3AM donuts in a city centre carpark. The sticky “Big Ole” will make you want to buy a new sub-woofer, while “BACK’!” is like floating on a purple cloud thanks to a kooky confidence and the kind of spaced out synths that resurrect the ATLiens era. — TH
8. Tyler, the Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost
On Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler, the Creator introduces his grandiose alter ego “Tyler Baudelaire.” The character teeters a plush lifestyle while being hard-spitting, reminding listeners of the early-2000s mixtape heyday. Alongside surprise host DJ Drama — long revered for his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series — Tyler, the Creator is at his most venomous, trading verses with newer MCs 42 Dugg, Youngboy Never Broke Again and Teezo Touchdown, while also being joined by his idols Lil Wayne and Pharrell Williams. — JTW
7. MIKE — Disco!
Across the 17 self-produced tracks on Disco!, MIKE attempts to piece his spirit back together in the wake of his mother’s death, locking in on healing from the impact of such an acute tragedy. Stepping away from the darker production of previous projects, the loops on Disco! are bright and glitchy, but never lag, offering a world-class pen wide and occasionally even warm spots to excavate, which is where the album feels particularly triumphant. “Struggling? Hmm nah, but I’m recovering,” the rapper exhales on “Aww(Zaza),” evening out the tone and mood of Disco! after five tracks of fragmented prayers, fierce scene-setting, and feverish introspection. And on “Endgame,” a woman’s voice outlines the central inquiry of Disco! “How does one illuminate a dark, muddy sky?,” she asks against grainy keys phasing in and out of the mix, to which the rapper responds with cutting clarity and focus. “Stay invested in the mission, before I rest pray/For the wit and ammunition for the next day.”
Four years and running, MIKE’s catalog has been one of rap’s most consistently thoughtful, plotted, and personal expositions of injury and loss. With Disco!, the rapper hasn’t exactly broken free of the clouded and emotionally dense space at that inspired past releases, but appears to have finally visualized a life that isn’t entirely defined by his trauma. — Zo
6. Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales
A collective of narratives — willingly offered with sobering realness from family and friends — inspire the anthology-style storytelling of Jazmine Sullivan‘s Heaux Tales. Beginning the project with the prophetic chant of “Get it together, bitch,” Jazmine uses her uncanny vocal delivery and personable songwriting to craft songs like the raw performance of Grammy-nominated “Pick Up Your Feelings,” the neo-soul homage of Anderson .Paak-assisted “Price Tags,” and the relatable awkward lingering of insecurities and vulnerability displayed on “Girl Like Me” featuring H.E.R. Jazmine’s musings of understanding womanhood, the depth of love, and complexities of existing as a Black woman has provided an experience of reframing our narratives. — KT
5. Doja Cat — Planet Her
On Planet Her, Doja Cat’s starpower is found. She’s a chameleon, a woman who fully embraces her sexuality and isn’t afraid to sing and rap about it. The opener, “Woman,” blends pop with R&B skillfully. While on “Get Into It (Yuh)” Doja serves up one of the most interesting rap songs of the year. She goes toe to toe with Atlanta’s Young Thug on the memorable cut “Payday.” In its entirety, Planet Her is a sensual and enjoyable homage to the divine feminine. — RM
4. Joyce Wrice — Overgrown
San Diego native Joyce Wrice is creating R&B that speaks to the giants she once listened to as a young music fan — artists like Brandy and Mariah Carey. With these vocalists as her guiding light she leaned in and created her satisfying debut album Overgrown, executive produced by Oscar winner D’Mile. There’s a sense of urgency lurking beneath the surface of tracks like “Falling In Love” in which she’s joined by the talent Lucky Daye. Elsewhere she weaves intimate storytelling with uptempo beats on tracks like “Losing,” “On One” featuring Freddie Gibbs, and “Must Be Nice” with Masego. The time she has carved out to dedicate to her sound and her brand of music is ever present on Overgrown. — RM
3. Navy Blue — Navy’s Reprise
Anyone having trouble keeping up with Sage Elsesser, aka Navy Blue, in 2021 deserves a pass. As a producer, the 24-year-old multi-hyphenate has supplied the backdrops for some of the year’s most lauded and lush albums: Wiki’s Half God, AKAI SOLO’s True Sky, and Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon’s Beautifully Black. But as a rapper, Navy Blue is responsible for at least one of the year’s most polished and pungent projects. On Navy’s Reprise, the Brooklyn-based artist’s third album in less than two years, Elsesser displays a command of cherished rap generations, regions, and their respective disciplines, that borders on obsession. “Light” and “Ritual” open the album with muscular symphonics, heavy knocks, and roaming riffs on spirituality, self-reliance, and hard-earned clarity. “Petty Cash” and “Timberwolves” bring the album into a narrow but beaming stretch of boom bap with slow burns on the dark side of success and the merits of setting your own pace. Openly indebted to (and thoroughly-versed in) the work of rap royalty and the grailed albums of hip-hop’s ever-innovating bloodline, Elsesser proves great masters are eternal students who embrace their vulnerabilities on Navy’s Reprise. — Zo
2. Mach-Hommy — Pray For Haiti
After years of dropping stellar (and very expansive) indie projects the mysterious Mach-Hommy emerged in 2021 with his biggest year to day — thanks partially to the marketing muscle of Griselda. On Pray for Haiti, Westside Gunn is the Ghostface to Mach’s Raekwon. The partnership is more Cuban Linx… Pt. II than Cuban Linx…, with Westside playing the role of gracious hype man in less than a handful of tracks. And it’s the right move. Westside, clear out, please. Mach is a singular MC — an electrifying unpredictable writer with more references than a Colson Whitehead novel. Mach dropped another standout album in 2021 — the more playful Balens Cho (Hot Candles) — but Pray for Haiti was the moment we wondered who the man behind the mask was. — DS
1. Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning
In the time since 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, Isaiah Rashad has changed without losing a step. His wit is no less sharp, his flows and delivery no less effortless and congenial. He’s still one of TDE’s most quotable signees. Now, he’s having a lot more fun with rap. The House Is Burning exists as Rashad’s return to equilibrium — a successful attempt at establishing balance between his storied soulful introspection and undying southern cool, while also introducing songs that exist purely to get shit jumping at the function. When you factor in a deluxe release that actually adds value instead of subtracts, THIB is another reminder that, despite the time away, Isaiah’s sun is far from setting any time soon. — Larry Little
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer