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Okayplayer's 21 Best Songs of 2021

If you were someone who still felt energized by the flood of new music that drops every Friday, then this was a great year for you. Here are Okayplayer's best songs of 2021.

Much has been written about the amount of music a recording artist puts out in the streaming era; it's hard being an artist and it's often overwhelming being a fan. Now, let's add a raging pandemic to the equation. Artists — already under-appreciated — who lost their biggest revenue source (live music) have had to depend on the charity of platforms (like a Bandcamp) or get eaten alive by the relentless streaming model. While fans, under constant duress due to COVID-19, have been using music as a balm, gravitating towards older songs that comfort — leaving little room for exploration. 

And yet, the music still hasn't stopped. If you were someone who still felt energized by New Music Fridays — where often dozens of quality albums were just dropped in front of your algorithmically distributed digital doorway — then 2021 was a great year in music for you. It was a year featuring a wide spectrum of styles, which our list takes note of, from buoyant bops to mournful tributes.

Scroll down for Okayplayer's 21 best songs of 2021.

21. RXNephew — “Blackberry Touchscreen”

Although it's the back half of this song that became viral earlier this year, all of RXNephew's "Blackberry Touchscreen" is good. But even in that one minute and 14 seconds — where the Rochester rapper is roasting the fuck out of the track's producer, Clean Dirt — one can hear everything that makes him more than a viral moment. The vocal delivery, the humor — both of these are integral to Neph's music, and upon listening to the first half of "Touchscreen," you'll also see he has that last element that people usually want from a rapper they like: that he can actually rap his ass off. By the end of "Touchscreen," if you don't come to the conclusion that Neph is both a good rapper and also absolutely hilarious, you, too, should also get roasted just as hard as the song's producer did. — Elijah Watson

20. Normani & Cardi B — "Wild Side"

Normani’sWild Side,” which features an interpolation of Aaliyah’s classic "One in a Million,” is an anthem of unapologetic, unbridled sexual energy. With Cardi B delivering a signature guest verse, matched with the sensuality of Normant’s vocal performance, “Wildside” is easily one of the top collaborations of the year. Accompanied with a stunning visual with choreography that showcases Normani’s remarkable prowess as a dancer, the track captures what “taking a walk on the wild side” is all about. — Rashad Grove

19. Silk Sonic — “Skate”

Yes, "Skate" was actually the best single off An Evening With Silk Sonic. And to those that disagree — maybe you just don't have taste? Although the sensual and slow soul of "Leave the Door Open" and "Smokin' Out the Window" were fine, "Skate" stood out for being the exact opposite of those two. The upbeat groove, the key change that comes during the bridge, the feel-good corniness of Bruno Mars and .Paak's lyrics is just as hilarious as it is beautifully poetic. The allure of Silk Sonic was always its commitment to going full retro — in both a musical and aesthetic sense. "Skate" did that and then some. — EW

18. MAVI — "Mama Say"

One of underground hip-hop’s most prolific and potent prospects, MAVI has earned his spot amongst heavy hitters in the field. And while he continues to ascend rap’s ranks with projects praised by critics and pedestrians alike, the Charlotte artist chose to cap an iron-strong year with a stirring salute to his mother on “Mama Say.” With a single verse and a monastic chant of a hook over a slow-burning CoffeeBlack production, MAVI grounds himself in his mother’s guidance, dedicates his wins to the woman who made them possible and makes sure the flowers are present even if his career won't always allow him to be. — Zo

17. Vanjess & Lucky Daye — “Slow Down”

“Slow Down,” by Nigerian-American duo VanJess and Lucky Daye embodies the new, forward progression of R&B. Masterfully produced by Snakehips & Jonah Christian, this sultry, slow jam has a romantic ethos that only can be experienced when we take the time to “slow down." Sampling the bluesy saxophone from Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s “Darkest Night,” “Slow down is the perfect track to set the mood and one of the standouts a year that gave us so much incredible R&B music. — RG

16. Hiatus Kaiyote — “Red Room”

Though not inspired by the events of the pandemic, Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Red Room” can be interpreted as finding peace amid confinement, amid chaos. In the music video, Hiatus Kaiyote is in a spinning room that turns increasingly more red, sitting atop a white car with “Mood Valiant” scribbled all over it. The piano comforts listeners while Palm’s smooth vocals and haunting lyrics reel you in. “It feels like I’m inside a flower / It feels like I'm inside my eyelids / And I don't wanna be / Anywhere but here.” Despite the ominous connotations of the color, “Red Room” encapsulates the thrill of riding out the storm rather than fleeing from it. — Ruth Samuel

15. Mereba — "Rider"

In a world fraught with gloom and doom, Mereba's “Rider” is a declaration of love & vulnerability. The simple instrumentation of the steel hang drums coupled with bongos and light percussion evoke an ethereal sound. While noting that the “world feels like a weight,” the sensual, almost tropical, melody is emblematic of love’s honeymoon phase. “Rider” is a testament to the transformative power of feeling seen and heard, and the beauty of breaking down one’s walls. — RS

14. Armand Hammer & Earl Sweatshirt — “Falling out The Sky”

Though they clock in at many years his elders, billy woods and ELUCID take cues from a worthy disciple on the full-float and fluttery Haram standout, “Falling Out The Sky.” Stashed in the back half of a jagged and jarringly raw collaborative project with Alchemist, the track opens with a sobering tone-setter from Earl Sweatshirt, who leads the charge with a meditation on his father’s passing. In his follow-up, woods recalls an early trek to the west and how he was greeted by a weed culture drastically divergent from the dry, impersonal, and coldly transactional trade of his native coast. ELUCID closes the cut with his own recollection of a younger self in unpracticed territory, setting up a formative summer camp scene in the Catskills. Between each verse, Alchemist stitches in a snippet from a luminary figure; first of Little Richard backing an airtight Sly Stone assertion, then of David Lynch describing how he submits to his unconscious self. The threads between them aren’t all that obvious. But they are layered, lucid, and employed with a leisurely resolve. The nostalgia isn't all that sordid, but it is heavy, holistic, and healing. Consider it an intergenerational exchange gone terribly right, where subterranean hip-hop elders, rock and roll royalty, an auteur filmmaker, and a maverick rap misfit, all hold equal footing in a broad, disjointed, and frankly, beautiful, discourse. — Zo

13. Joyce Wrice & Freddie Gibbs — “On One”

Adjoining the release of her debut album Overgrown, Joyce Wrice rides high on the guitar-driven “On One” featuring Freddie Gibbs. The Alfredo MC fits the song naturally, cleverly referencing Paris Fashion Week and “Freak Like Me” femme fatale Adina Howard. The video for “On One”offers a healthy dose of Y2K nostalgia with a summertime choreography that personifies California cool.  — Jaelani Turner-Williams

12. Injury Reserve — "Knees"

Injury Reserve's world was turned upside down after the tragic loss of talented MC Stepa J. Groggs last year, and "Knees" unintentionally plays out as a eulogy to the late 32-year-old. Originally intended as a song about personal growth, Groggs' death means that Ritchie with a T's lyrics are destined to be viewed as mournful, with the sombre music video only adding to this notion. But this is a song that's really about moving on from trauma, with Groggs' pledge to triumphantly swing his dreadlocks hinting at hope beyond the electrical fog. Standing tall is how Groggs deserves to be remembered. — Thomas Hobbs

11. Jazmine Sullivan & Ari Lennox — “On It”

Jazmine Sullivan is proof that R&B vocalists still exist. Her latest album, Heaux Tales, is an introspective album in which she lays herself bare for listeners. “On It” is fiery, explosive and admirable all at once. With the assistance of vocalist Ari Lennox, Sullivan serves up an exquisite listen. It’s much more than a sex song, it’s a robust exploration of Jazmine and Ari’s sexual prowess and we’re grateful they both revealed a cut that’s the opposite of lukewarm. — Robyn Mowatt

10. Megan Thee Stallion — "Thot Shit"

Megan Thee Stallion continued her reign as champ of the female rap game in 2021. With “Thot Shit” she runs swiftly back to her mixtape era and shells out aggressive bars. Over an OG Parker beat, Megan’s alter ego Tina Snow returns. Confidence is all over this single, but so is an infectious energy accompanied by a subtle instrumental. Lyrically, Meg knows her fans enjoy her most when she’s bragging about her accolades, her accomplishments and how she exceeds expectations when she’s in her rap bag. “Thot Shit” lets fans know the Houston star is still eager and her pen has been steadily working. — RM

9. Isaiah Rashad & Duke Deuce — “Lay Wit Ya”

After 15 years or so of Memphis rap revivalism by the mainstream, “Lay Wit Ya” was bound to happen — even if it is a few years later than expected. Isaiah Rashad, one of Tennessee’s brightest stars, teamed up with the son of a former Hypnotize Camp Posse affiliate for a bounce-back single — complete with the obligatory Three 6 Mafia sample that fits in seamlessly with digital streaming playlists. Duke Deuce crashes Isaiah’s party, adding much-needed heft and hype to a bleary-eyed single. — Torry Threadcraft

8. Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow — "Industry Baby"

Somewhere behind an impenetrable shield of irony, wry wit, and compliments about his marketing prowess lies a fundamental — and possibly overlooked — truth about Lil Nas X: the guy flat-out knows how to make bangers. It's a point he proved again with "Industry Baby," an energetic bop with Jack Harlow that gave Nas X his third Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single. On the track, both artists reflect on their come up. For his end of things, Harlow serves up a slick, self-mythologizing verse that manages to be as searing as it is funny. After unloading quippy bars of his own, Lil Nas X soars above triumphant horns to run a victory lap for the hook: "I told you long ago on the road/I got what they waiting for." The way things are looking, he probably won't have to tell anyone again. — Peter A. Berry

7. PinkPantheress — "Break It Off"

"No one ever saw me cry, until I left the party the other night / Do you remember all the things that you said to me / That came out of his mouth automatically?"

From the melody to the phrasing to PinkPantheress' distinct vocals, the opening line to "Break It Off" is so good I've found myself randomly humming it or singing verbatim more than I care to admit. And then there's the drum and bass that kicks in, transforming the singer's sad anthem into an upbeat dance track. In its brevity, "Break It Off" manages to maintain a momentum that's driving until the very end. Even if PinkPantheress doesn't usher in a drum and bass renaissance — at the very least she's indirectly led to rappers to going in on drum and bass tracks — there's no denying her abilities as a songwriter. "Break It Off" showcasing what makes her so great — all in under two minutes. — EW

6. Little Simz — "I Love You, I Hate You"

There’s an incredible amount of nuance that comes with forgiveness. Even more so when it involves the shortcomings and failures of our parents. On “I Love You, I Hate You,” Little Simzruns through emotions surrounding not only her career, but also the absence of her father. Feelings of distress and physical affliction are surrounded by angelic strings and orchestral harmonies — Inflo’s monumental production perfectly backing the rapper's vulnerable declarations. Thunderous horns punctuate each verse as Simz raps her way through the complicated process of being honest about the heartache she endured while still leaving room for understanding. By song's end, Simz makes her way towards forgiveness, but for her sake and no one else's. — Larry Little

5. Lucky Daye & Yebba — “How Much Can A Heart Take”

Lucky Daye and Yebba’s “How Much Can A Heart Take” is a brilliant song. The track is sumptuous, soul-filled and it gets better the more you listen to it. The urgency in the songwriting is what captured me. But, the intertwined vocals of Daye and Yebba make this duet a killer track. — RM

4. Vince Staples & Fousheé — "Take Me Home"

To say Vince Staples' pen is colder than a Canadian permafrost would be the understatement of the decade. The Long Beach rapper has been a gifted storyteller since the days of Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 and has only become more moving and visual in his writing in the years that followed. “Take Me Home” is the latest testament to Vince’s ability to bring you into his world and provide a glimpse of what rests on his heart and mind. Kenny Beats’ subdued production and Fousheé's soft but affecting vocals work in conjunction with Vince’s listless tone. They establish a sense of clarity — a soundscape with no distractions — as he speaks on feelings of confinement, reluctance, paranoia, and the familiarity that accompanies them. Home is still as much a place of confusion as it is a place of comfort. — LL

3. Mach-Hommy — "The Stellar Ray Theory"

Four years after what seemed like a one-and-done debut, Mach-Hommy reunited with Griselda and label chief Westside Gunn on the chilling, hopeful, and deeply cinematic Pray For Haiti. On the album’s lead single, “The Stellar Ray Theory,” the rapper summons the full breadth of his powers and displays an evident mastery of Golden Era pacing, deliveries, and cadences. Settled into the space between a rubbery sax loop and warbled keys, Mach invokes a world-building early-aughts MF DOOM and the melodic melancholy of a young Black Dante as he ruminates on the limits of optimism, grailed rap beefs, Creole folklore, and some of hip-hop’s greatest what-ifs.  — Zo

2. EST Gee — “Lick Back”

Rappers have spent decades grappling with the inevitability of death. Verses upon verses attempt to bargain with the creator, or ponder their own role in their impending demise. In the last two years, Louisville, Kentucky MC EST Gee has patented a sneering, deliberate brand of rap, staring into the void unimpressed and spitting in its face. Considering the fact his surge in popularity came after being shot five times, losing his mother to leukemia, and his brother to gun violence, the hubris is understandable. “Lick Back” is a victory lap, just one repugnant verse without a single wasted syllable, a middle finger to detractors, real-life enemies, and fate itself. — TT

1. Kanye West & André 3000 — “Life Of The Party”

Whenever André 3000 shows up to rap it seems inevitable that it will result in a time-stopping verse of the year. This is surely the case on the initially leaked, eventually officially released, track “Life Of The Party” on the deluxe version of Kanye West’s DONDA album. André floats onto the track, propelled by a looped The Dramatics sample which Kanye vocally mirrors for the hook. André proceeds, for nearly two minutes, to rap a purposeful plea to Kanye’s mother urging her to pass along a message and questions to his own mother in the afterlife. André hopes through this transfer his mother will send him back some wisdom that provides clarity. The verse holds closest to the album’s theme as any from the project using its sonics as a vessel to spiritually communicate. This goosebumps inducing verse over a gorgeously composed instrumental catapults the song to being the year’s best — even as Kanye used some of his verse to continue his squabble with Drake. André deserved better than to have that interfere with this offering. — Miki Hellerbach


Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer