The Best Albums of 2021 (So Far) – U.S. Edition

The Best Albums of 2021 (So Far) - U.S. Edition

These are the 30 albums that have defined the year in music so far.

Let’s be honest: It’s been an unusual year in music so far. At the midway point of 2021, many of the heavyweights in rap and pop are still holding on to their albums, waiting for the full-blown return of live concerts and festivals. In their absence, up-and-comers like Pooh Shiesty and Olivia Rodrigo have stepped up and taken advantage of the lull to make noise of their own, previewing what music might sound like in years to come. If you miss the A-listers, though, you’re in luck. All signs point to the second half of the year bringing the kind of blockbuster albums that have largely evaded us so far. J. Cole’s The Off-Season may have just broken the seal, and now we await rumored releases from the likes of Drake and Kendrick (and even a joint project from Lil Baby and Lil Durk). 

Because of all this, our annual mid-year best albums list arrives at a moment of transition, which makes it a great time to reflect on the projects that have defined 2021 up until now. These are the artists who were bold enough to release albums in a time of uncertainty, and whose fearlessness has already been rewarded. These are the picks for the best albums of 2021 (so far).

30.) 22Gz, ‘The Blixky Tape 2’

Image via Atlantic Records

Label: Atlantic Records
Released: March 18

22Gz is one of the brightest stars of a Brooklyn drill scene that’s still bustling, despite what casual fans may believe, and The Blixky Tape 2 is his latest offering. There’s a popular perception that drill-oriented artists aren’t lyricists, but an intent listen to this album shatters that myth. If you don’t get too lost in the beats, you’ll realize 22Gz is a sharp technical lyricist on standout tracks like “Twirlanta,” “Blixky Gang Freestyle Pt. 2,” and “Movie.” —Andre Gee

29.) Saweetie, ‘Pretty Summer Playlist: Season 1’

Image via Warner Records

Label: Warner Records
Released: April 16

Saweetie’s Pretty Summer Playlist: Season 1 is a valiant effort to share her growing platform with new, emerging artists. On the seven-track project, Saweetie carefully selects contemporary voices like Bbyafricka, Lourdiz, and Loui, all of which are complementary to Saweetie’s fun and expressive attitude. The project doesn’t quite live up to explosive singles like “My Type” or the Doja Cat-assisted record “Best Friend,” but it was never supposed to. Pretty Summer Playlist is the start of a new tradition that showcases Saweetie’s ability to spotlight fellow musicians, as well as a quick exercise to sharpen her own craft. —Jessica McKinney

28.) Myke Towers, ‘Lyke Mike’

Image via Warner Music Latina

Label: Whiteworld Music/Warner Music Latina
Released: April 23

The much-anticipated Lyke Mike is a carefully curated album that has catapulted Myke Towers to even more prominence. Many artists in the Latin space rely on singles, collabs, and remixes, but Myke focused on executing a complete album, limiting his features to several savvy artists with hard-hitting bars and utilizing the trap sound that got him here. Myke goes deep with witty wordplay in each of the 23 tracks as he cements his position near the top of the Latin music mountain. This project proves that he’s a star, and he’s here to stay. —Alejandro De Jesus

27.) Lil Yachty, ‘Michigan Boy Boat’

Image via Quality Control Music/Capitol Records

Label: Quality Control Music/Capitol Records
Released: April 23

Lil Yachty told us he made Michigan Boy Boat as a way to spotlight all the great new talent coming out of Flint and Detroit right now, but in the process, his collaborators helped ignite a new creative energy inside him. “I learned new schemes and cadences,” he explained. “And I learned to have fun with it. They have fun. They talk about all kinds of crazy shit.” It’s true; we’ve heard Lil Yachty play around with a lot of styles before, but we’ve never heard him rap like this. Tapping in with everyone from YN Jay to Sada Baby to Babyface Ray, he bounces across hard-hitting production with tightly-wound verses that’ll have you running them back to catch all the intricacies. Before the project dropped, Yachty said he raps “really unorthodox on it,” predicting that “a lot of people won’t like it” and “a lot of people will think it’s offbeat.” It’s true that Michigan Boy Boat is a big stylistic departure from releases like Teenage Emotions, but in most ways, that’s a good thing. You can tell Yachty enjoyed making this album in a way that wasn’t as evident on recent projects. Most of us didn’t predict this particular chapter in Yachty’s career, but we’re sure glad it arrived. —Eric Skelton

26.) Brockhampton, ‘Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine’

Image via RCA Records

Label: RCA Records
Released: April 9

“I’m the newest member of Brockhampton” is a joke that’s been made by everyone from Jaden Smith to random fans on Twitter over the past couple years. It’s a winking acknowledgement of the sprawling size of the group, and a hint at the idea that Brockhampton could one day evolve to include new artists. Throughout their first five albums, though, they rarely incorporated outside collaborators. When your group has over 10 members in it, why rush to bring in even more voices? Well, that approach changed on Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine, an album that features rappers like ASAP Rocky, Danny Brown, and JPEGMafia. As a result, the 13-song project possesses a sense of urgency that we haven’t heard since Brockhampton’s Saturation trilogy. Songs like “Buzzcut” and “Bankroll” have the explosive energy needed to slide in next to all-time standouts like “Gold” on their next festival setlist. And those high-energy tracks are balanced out by the intense emotion of songs like “The Light,” in which Joba works through the trauma of his father’s recent death and Kevin Abstract dives head-first into the turmoil of his childhood. On Roadrunner, Brockhampton manages to accomplish the difficult task of branching out in new directions, while reigniting the initial creative fire that drew so many of us to their music in the first place. —Eric Skelton

25.) Lil Tjay, ‘Destined 2 Win’

Image via Columbia Records

Label: Columbia Records
Released: April 2

Lil Tjay’s melodies are front and center on everything he makes, and his new album Destined 2 Win is proof that he’s on the way to where he wants to be. He’s a New York rapper who addresses love and heartbreak just as much as he does the streets and his come-up. Maybe that’s why he says he’s “destined to win.” By doing it all (and doing it all at a high level) isn’t that proof that he’s already won? Destined 2 Win is a little too long at 21 songs (including three bonus tracks) so it dilutes its message a bit towards the end, but the highs (“Headshot,” “Run It Up,” “Headshot”) are very high and the totality of the project proves that Lil Tjay is here to stay. —Trey Alston

24.) DMX, ‘Exodus’

Image via Publicist

Label: Def Jam Recordings
Released: May 28

DMX had been candid about how good he felt about making music again, and his artistry is reflected throughout Exodus, which spans the themes and moods that made him one of the rap game’s most beloved artists. There’s the grit of “That’s My Dawg” with The Lox and “Hood Blues” with Griselda. There are glimpses of his knack for hitmaking with the radio-ready “Bath Salts” and “Dogs Out” with Lil Wayne, as well the smooth “Take Control.” And songs like “Walking In The Rain” and “Letter To My Son” reflect a level of honesty that had to have felt cathartic in the moment, but bear an entirely different gravitas in light of his passing. While many of us are still mourning his loss, we should be grateful that The Dog delivered one last offering on his own terms. —Andre Gee

23.) Babyface Ray, ‘Unf*ckwitable’

Image via Wavy Gang/EMPIRE

Label: Wavy Gang/EMPIRE
Released: May 14 (deluxe)

Michigan is home to one of the most entertaining (and hilarious) emerging rap scenes in the country right now, and Babyface Ray embodies everything that makes the region’s rappers so enthralling. On each song, Ray figures out new ways to hit you over the head with unexpected one-liners that’ll invariably bounce around your brain for weeks—and he always does it in his own nonchalant way. There’s something about Bavyface Ray’s music that sounds effortless, and on Unfuckwitable, each song flows out of him with ease as he leans into his conversational style. The original 8-song EP was solid, but for the purposes of this list, we’ll focus on the 13-song deluxe, which feels like a more proper album with the additional tracks. Whether you’re just now getting into the new era of Michigan rappers or you’re already deeply invested in the scene, Unfuckwitable is well worth your time. —Eric Skelton

22.) YSL, ‘Slime Language 2’

Image via Young Stoner Life Records/300 Entertainment

Label: Young Stoner Life Records/300 Entertainment
Released: April 16

Young Thug’s idiosyncratic creativity drives not just the hip-hop culture in Atlanta, but the whole industry as we see it. When he creates a compilation album, you pay attention. That’s why Slime Language 2, made up of an all-star cast of rap superstars alongside members of his Young Stoner Life family, is so intriguing. It’s a party, through and through, that celebrates what makes Young Thug and his camp some of the most exciting rappers in the game. Thug largely plays the background here, letting a cast that includes Gunna, Lil Baby, Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Lil Keed, and so many more intermingle on a massive 31-song collection of bangers (if you count the deluxe). There are some skips, but the album’s very high highs make it worthwhile. —Trey Alston

21.) 42 Dugg, ‘Free Dem Boyz’

Image via 4PF/CMG

Label: 4PF/CMG
Released: May 21

After a breakout year in 2020 with songs like “We Paid” and “Not a Rapper,” 42 Dugg told Complex about his biggest goal for his next album, Free Dem Boyz. “If you been following me, you been seeing all my songs are about freeing somebody,” he said. “I really made [this album] about my people in jail and my loved ones that ain’t here with me.” From the album artwork to the deeply personal lyrics on songs like “Free Merey,” the rising Detroit rapper does exactly that. And he executes with style, leaning into one of the most distinguishable vocal deliveries in rap. Seconds into any 42 Dugg verse, you immediately know it’s him—and not just because of his signature whistle. He’s found his own unique way to attack beats, separating himself from a sea of similar-sounding peers. Dugg could have carried this album by himself, but he was nice enough to treat us to guest verses from collaborators like Lil Durk, Roddy Ricch, and Future (who delivered a few lines that momentarily broke the internet). We appreciate it, Dugg. —Eric Skelton

20.) Pooh Shiesty, ‘Shiesty Season’

Image via Publicist

Label: Atlantic Records/1017
Released: February 5

The world heard “Back In Blood” and immediately latched on to Pooh Shiesty. His verse was calm and direct but carried more power than some artists who scream their threats. He proved to be poised but powerful, something that would come to drive his breakout project, Shiesty Season. With the balmy demeanor of Hannibal Lecter, Shiesty alerts us to the fact that he eats Church’s Chicken before staking out on someone’s block. And when he has beef, he assembles a gun out of the pieces he carries in his backpack. Whether you’re in the gym or winding down for the day, Shiesty Season provides a fitting soundtrack, thanks to Shiesty’s unbreakable chill. —Trey Alston

19.) Jorja Smith, ‘Be Right Back’

Image via FAMM

Label: FAMM
Released: May 14

It feels like Jorja Smith pops out of nowhere every now and then to drop music, and when she does, the world stops. Her latest release, Be Right Back, is a falsetto-filled, mystic exploration set to the strums of guitar strings and plucks of piano keys. On songs like “Burn” and “Home,” her melancholic lyricism adds a cloud over the kind of comforting instrumentation that would feel at home with her past work. It’s not a jarring evolution of her sound, but it’s another taste from a secretive artist who likes to stay out of the spotlight. Who could complain about that? —Trey Alston

18.) Jim Jones & Harry Fraud, ‘The Fraud Department’

Image via The Fraud Department/EMPIRE

Label: The Fraud Department/EMPIRE
Released: February 19

Jim Jones says he never actually linked up in-person with Harry on The Fraud Department, but the project shows that you don’t necessarily need to be together to connect. Jones sounds invigorated over Harry’s production, rattling off his life lessons and Harlem memories with a spoken word flow that darts over soulful, beguiling samples. Album standouts include the gracious “Laps Around The Sun,” the soulful “Lose Lose,” and “Barry White,” where he muses, “You know it’s scary in the hood cause even a reaper gets fresh,” over production that sounds like a reaper’s actually on the loose. Guests like Conway, Curren$y, and French Montana hold their weight on the album, adding up to another strong effort from a rap veteran who knows exactly what he’s trying to do and who he’s doing it for. —Andre Gee

17.) Sleepy Hallow, ‘Still Sleep?’

Image via Winners Circle Entertainment/RCA Records

Label: Winners Circle Entertainment/RCA Records
Released: June 2

Sleepy Hallow first emerged from Brooklyn’s drill scene, but he’s made a point to explain that his sound transcends the subgenre. “It’s way more than drill,” he told Complex in 2020, describing the aesthetics of his Winners Circle crew. And on his new album Still Sleep? he proves that to be very true. Sure, the project has a handful of bass-heavy drill songs, but most of the best moments come when Sleepy ruminates on life over jazzy guitar licks. There’s a soulful quality to his voice that comes to life over stylistically eccentric beats from his go-to producer Great John. Songs like “Make You” and “Murder She Wrote” show Sleepy’s exceptional range as he reflects on life’s challenges over slow-grooving production. And the project shines brightest on tracks like “2055,” “4or Days,” and “2 Sauce,” where he skillfully blends his soulful delivery with harder-hitting beats from John. As the album title implies, there are still a lot of people who haven’t caught on to the magic Sleepy and John have been cooking up lately, but we have a feeling Still Sleep? is going to turn a lot of heads. Wake up! —Eric Skelton

16.) Quando Rondo, ‘Still Taking Risks’

Image via Quando Rondo LLC/Never Broke Again LLC/Atlantic Records

Label: Quando Rondo LLC/Never Broke Again LLC/Atlantic Records
Released: May 7

Still Taking Risks reflects a period of turmoil and tragedy. Last November, Quando Rondo and rapper King Von got into an altercation which led to a member of the former’s entourage shooting Von to death. After being quiet initially, Rondo emerged, first through music, then on social media, to address the situation publicly. Still Taking Risks references the aftermath of the incident and the death threats he’s received. There’s a level of anxiety that drives the album, as some of his lyrics come across like urgent pleas for anyone thinking of hurting Quando Rondo to leave him alone. He raps and pushes melodies with even more confidence than he usually does, starting with the combative opener “Blue Man” all the way to the blink-and-you-miss-it storytelling on the closer, “Go That Way.” Quando Rondo makes it clear that the heightened stress of the moment is only pushing his music to be even more impactful. —Trey Alston

15.) Rome Streetz & DJ Muggs, ‘Death & the Magician’

Image via Soul Assassins Records

Label: Soul Assassins Records
Released: February 26

Rome Streetz began 2021 like he was trying to set the tone for all his fellow lyricists on Death & the Magician, a collaborative album with DJ Muggs. The legendary producer has been blessing MCs with tailormade soundscapes for years, and Rome Streetz’s entry may have jumped to the top of that canon. Muggs crafted production full of dusty drums and sinister chops, ripe for Streetz’s unmistakably New York grit and braggadocio. The rapper spits like a man possessed on tracks like “Prayers Over Packages,” “Stone Cold Soul,” and “Zig Zag Zig,” which is named after a gem of a lyric: “Allah Zig Zag Zig, my only concern is if the bag big.” Based on the skills he showed off on Death & the Magician, he should have few concerns rapwise. —Andre Gee

14.) Young Nudy, ‘DR. EV4L’

Image via PDE Records/Same Plate/RCA Records

Let’s be honest: It’s been an unusual year in music so far. At the midway point of 2021, many of the heavyweights in rap and pop are still holding on to their albums, waiting for the full-blown return of live concerts and festivals. In their absence, up-and-comers like Pooh Shiesty and Olivia Rodrigo have stepped up and taken advantage of the lull to make noise of their own, previewing what music might sound like in years to come. If you miss the A-listers, though, you’re in luck. All signs point to the second half of the year bringing the kind of blockbuster albums that have largely evaded us so far. J. Cole’s The Off-Season may have just broken the seal, and now we await rumored releases from the likes of Drake and Kendrick (and even a joint project from Lil Baby and Lil Durk).

Because of all this, our annual mid-year best albums list arrives at a moment of transition, which makes it a great time to reflect on the projects that have defined 2021 up until now. These are the artists who were bold enough to release albums in a time of uncertainty, and whose fearlessness has already been rewarded. These are Complex’s picks for the best albums of 2021 (so far).

13.) Slowthai, ‘Tyron’

Image via Method Records

Label: Method Records
Released: February 12

What can you do after being involved in controversy? You can fight and fuss about it. You can apologize. Or you can make an album that’s at least partially inspired by it. A year to the day after Slowthai was kicked out of the NME Awards, he chose the final option, and it worked. Childhood, adulthood, and regret are among the themes of the project, which encompasses two drastically different halves: the first, characterized by songs with ALL-CAPS titles, is aggressive, and the second, featuring songs with lowercase names, is more tranquil. In doing so, he creates a complete self-portrait of someone reckoning with the fire and ice of their soul, seeking out another chance inspired by the mistakes that they’ve grown from. —Trey Alston

12.) Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’

Image via Geffen Records

Label: Geffen Records
Released: May 21

In the face of a massive No. 1 single “drivers license” and Goliath-sized expectations, Sour heralds a pop rookie with veteran tendencies. It’s refreshing and concise, as Olivia Rodrigo takes a blunt approach to the breakup album. While the heartbreak and treachery she sings about on standout “traitor” can feel ambiguous, her words are not. It’s clear that Rodrigo’s bread and butter is autobiographical breakup tracks, not unlike those a certain pop superstar used to make. However, her most impactful songwriting comes on the album’s closer, which goes in a different direction. On “hope ur okay,” Rodrigo writes about two people she used to know who have had to survive difficult family circumstances, domestic abuse, and as detailed in the second verse, a family’s vitriol toward a young LGBTQ teen’s partner. She sings, “Does she know how proud I am she was created / With the courage to unlearn all of their hatred?” At times, you can see Rodrigo’s age in the specifics of the stories she weaves, but it goes mostly unnoticed because of her overall maturity. She’s a massive hit with Gen Z, but it’s millennials who have transformed the Olivia Rodrigo craze into nostalgia-fueled viral tweets and self-deprecating memes about how a girl 15 years their junior can be hitting the nail so precisely on the head. With Sour, Rodrigo covers the misfortunes that come with love, loss, and growing up, championing outcasts with angst as she says what pretty much everyone is thinking: “God, it’s brutal out here.” —Waiss Aramesh

11.) Armand Hammer & The Alchemist, ‘Haram’

Image via Armand Hammer

Label: Backwoodz Studioz
Released: March 26

At times, the music industry feels like it’s delivering music on a conveyor belt that’s spinning at warp speed. So much music is celebrated one Friday and seemingly forgotten by the next, and sometimes artists play into that with below-effort projects. So it’s refreshing to hear albums that defy that dynamic, like Armand Hammer’s Alchemist-produced Haram. ALC gives the Armand Hammer pairing of Elucid and billy woods a surreal, eccentric soundscape, and they bounce off each other well stylistically. Throughout Haram, the duo co-pilot on a warp-speed journey through themes of pro-Blackness, existentialism, and gems like woods’ “I can’t afford not to believe in things unseen / But belief always been dangerous to me” on “Scaffolds.” The pair rap with a strong worldview and an off-kilter, spoken-word style that feels unbothered by palatability, which could be off-putting to a listener looking to be appealed to. Some rap is best to vibe to, but projects like Haram deserve your continued attention. It defies the idea of rap as ephemeral #content, and densely rewards extra listens which inevitably unravel new insights. So-called experimental boombap is characterized as “left field,” but Haram is an offering of two MCs who have left the plane entirely. —Andre Gee

10.) Morray, ‘Street Sermons’

Image via Pick Six Records/Interscope Records

Label: Pick Six Records/Interscope Records
Released: April 28

Morray’s Street Sermons is a collection of life lessons taken from the North Carolina artist’s own experiences and packaged into easily digestible scripture. And what makes the project even more captivating is the amount of soul Morray squeezes into each track. His voice has the strength of an old Southern choir, but he never sounds overly preachy. Instead, his harmonies are comforting. On songs like “Trenches” and his breakout single “Quicksand,” he paints vivid pictures of growing up in the streets, encountering near-shootings, and facing daily struggles. But the album is never bogged down by too much sorrow or grief, as he maintains a vibrant spirit that makes you want to dance more than cry. Morray told Complex that his “biggest goal is to go down in music history as one of the most genuine, solid niggas out there,” and his career is only just getting started, but that authenticity is already shining through brightly on his debut project. —Jessica McKinney

9.) Conway the Machine, ‘La Maquina’

Image via Griselda Records/Drumwork/EMPIRE

Label: Griselda Records/Drumwork/EMPIRE
Released: April 16

Conway the Machine has said that La Maquina is a project in which he attempted to showcase his versatility over a range of production. We know his crew’s sound is so distinct that their grimey keys engender “Griselda beats be like” familiarity, but Conway vied to affirm that he’s a rapper’s rapper who can find the pocket over any kind of beat. Hence tracks like “KD” or “6:30 Tipoff,” where he talks his shit over the kind of triumphant horns one could hear Jeezy or T.I. spitting over. On “Scatter Brain,” he shows off over an eerie vocal sample, matching J.I.D’s tongue-twisting presence as well as Ludacris’ turn-back-the-clock moment. But he also gives the purists what they seek with “Bruiser Brody,” “200 Pies” with 2 Chainz, and “S.E. Gang” with Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher. La Maquina is a classic rap gauntlet that affirms a premise that the best rappers are prideful of: Give me any kind of beat and watch me kill it. —Andre Gee

8.) Moneybagg Yo, ‘A Gangsta’s Pain’

Image via CMG/N-Less Entertainment/Interscope Records

Label: CMG/N-Less Entertainment/Interscope Records
Released: April 23

MoneyBagg Yo told Billboard that he initially wanted to split A Gangsta’s Pain into two sides: one with his more “gangster” songs and one with tracks about “pain.” But he decided to put them together to deliver “different vibes.” In reality, pain is always around the corner for someone living that life. It’s one in the same, which is why MoneyBagg Yo’s latest effort fed the streets so well. There are the obvious hits like “Time Today” and “Wockesha” (with the classic “One More Chance” piano), but he also shows a different side of his artistry on reflective songs like the title track and “Bipolar Virgo,” where he spills his heart and concludes, “The streets don’t love you, they just take you away from who do.” Moneybagg Yo’s gruff baritone adds gravitas to the album’s more personal moments, as he delivers a project that displays his full artistry. —Andre Gee

7.) Rod Wave, ‘SoulFly’

Image via Alamo Records

Label: Alamo Records
Released: March 26

Though he can flex as well as anyone else, Rod Wave’s knack for portraying past trauma so effectively is what makes him one of the most intriguing new artists in music. SoulFly is the latest (and most vivid) realization of this ability, as he rips pages out of his diary over 19 tracks of soul-stirring beats. On a song like “Gone Till November,” his problems are laid out in painstaking detail—he can’t keep everyone happy and he’s got some serious issues with his father. There’s no positive turn on the LP, and that’s what makes it so rich. Rod Wave keeps digging further into his insecurities until we’re down in the hole with him, seeking the same guidance that he’s looking for. Yeah, lots of rappers can make you want to stunt with them. Seldom can they make you pray for their souls. —Trey Alston

6.) Justin Bieber, ‘Justice’

Image via Def Jam Recordings

Label: Def Jam Recordings
Released: March 19

More than a year after releasing the polarizing project Changes, Justin Bieber returns to form on his sixth studio album, Justice. Singing about his two most important relationships—with God and with his wife Hailey Baldwin Bieber—Justin pulls off a project full of stadium anthems that span several genres. Justin experiments on Justice, venturing down somewhat unfamiliar (but not altogether surprising) avenues as he teams up with everyone from Nigerian superstar Burna Boy to Florida newcomer Dominic Fike. One jarring aspect of Justice is the inclusion of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches as interludes, which jut out of place on an album that’s for the most part a love letter to Hailey (and despite the album’s title, do not have much to do with Justice in the sense Justin intends). Still, he went about it the right way, reaching out to and working with MLK’s daughter Bernice King. Otherwise, Justice might be Justin’s most cohesive project yet. The married star mixes his penchant for hitmaking with deeply personal confessions, letting listeners in on just how much his life has changed in recent years. There’s a sense of finality on some of these songs, an odd feeling for a 27-year-old pop star who is still racking up gaudy streaming numbers. On the album’s penultimate track “Anyone,” Justin sings, “If it’s not you, it’s not anyone / Lookin’ back on my life, you’re the only good I’ve ever done.” Maybe after over a decade of scrutiny, the reason he sounds so focused is because he’s finally found the peace and purpose he’s been looking for all along. —Waiss Aramesh

5.)Mach-Hommy, ‘Pray For Haiti’

Image via Griselda Records

Label: Griselda Records
Released: May 21

It’s been almost five years since Mach-Hommy dropped HBO with Griselda. Since then, he and the Buffalo camp have gone their separate ways, only for Mach to reunite with Westside Gunn (as they’d planned to do) on Pray for Haiti, a 16-track project executive produced by the mouthpiece of Western New York. Some are calling this Mach’s most accessible body of work to date, a fact that owes in part to the stamp of an ascendant Griselda. The enigmatic New Jersey-born rapper skates over production from Camoflauge Monk (including the hardest track on the album, “Murder Czn”), Cee Gee (“Marie”), and Montreal’s Nicholas Craven (“Kriminel”). Mach’s storytelling remains vivid, punctuated by punchlines (“Lotta these rappers big 12 like March Madness”) and strings of Haitian Creole. Gunn chimes in with ad-libs and a few verses (“Folie Á Deux,” “Murder Czn,” “Rami”), adding menace and levity to the album. At the end of Pray for Haiti’s 39-minute runtime, we’re left with only one question: What, exactly, did Jigga tell Mach? We probably won’t find out on the next project, but God knows some of us will speculate. —Lucas Wisenthal

4.) Jazmine Sullivan, ‘Heaux Tales’

Image via RCA Records

Label: RCA Records
Released: January 8

Arriving in early January, Heaux Tales will go down as the first great album of 2021, and it still holds up as one of the year’s very best releases. The 14-track project is a master class in women’s agency. On records like “On It” and “Put It Down,” she tackles sexual freedom, and on “Lost One” and “Pick Up Your Feelings,” she discusses relationship dynamics. The lyrical messages are very timely considering the social conversations of today, and the interludes—candid snippets of discussion from women in Sullivan’s circle—play an important role in maintaining the project’s intimate feel. It’s an album that oozes empowerment and femininity, but Sullivan’s voice, raspy and sweet, also delivers lyrics that pull back the layers of her own fragility. Jazmine Sullivan has always been deserving of the spotlight, but with Heaux Tales, she makes it even more difficult to look away, delivering one of the year’s best albums. —Jessica McKinney

3.) Shelley FKA DRAM, ‘Shelley FKA DRAM’

Image via Atlantic Records

Label: Atlantic Records/EMPIRE
Released: April 29

Roughly half a decade removed from capturing national attention with songs like “Cha Cha” and “Broccoli,” DRAM announced he would be changing his stage name to his government name Shelley. And so began a very successful career transition. DRAM was a fun and energetic voice in rap, which is a brand he could’ve kept making hits with, but his new turn toward R&B as Shelley puts him in a league of his own. On his self-titled album, he’s smooth and sophisticated, delivering the kind of sound that will dominate late-night contemporary R&B radio. There is an effortless element of nostalgia to these songs, and at times his vocal delivery might even remind you of those old ‘90s videos where the protagonist would sing outside of his lover’s bedroom in the rain. The album’s guests, which include labelmate Summer Walker and H.E.R., help keep the album sounding fresh and current, though. This new direction was a big swing, but he pulled it off. Shelley FKA DRAM is a product of an endless supply of talent and extremely well-executed rebranding, proving he can do anything. —Jessica McKinney

2.) Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud, ‘The Plugs I Met 2’

Image via Black Soprano Family/SRFSCHL

Label: Black Soprano Family/SRFSCHL
Released: March 19

There were high expectations for the follow-up to Benny the Butcher’s heralded The Plugs I Met EP, and he sought Harry Fraud to help him deliver. The two started collaborating because of mutual respect for each others’ skills, and they both proved why they were right on the sequel. Benny covers wide ground on the tight nine-song tracklist. He exclaims, “I rap about drugs, this what I talk about, nigga, let me do me, nigga,” on “Thanksgiving,” but uses the game as a foil to explore all different sides of it. On “Live By It” he dives into the nature of gun violence, rapping, “I gave hammers to little niggas who not responsible for ‘em / The power of having a gun a big obstacle for ’em.” On “Survivor’s Remorse,” he reflects on confusion about his success when so many of his peers haven’t been so lucky. And on “Plug Talk,” he gives you exactly what the title suggests alongside 2 Chainz, defiling the lush production with bars like, “You hear sounds of the pot scrapin’, me I only hear music.” The Plugs I Met 2 is one of the year’s best collective bodies of work, as Benny shows off his lyrical ability, his knack for one-liners, and his conceptual versatility. —Andre Gee

1.) J. Cole, ‘The Off-Season’

Image via Dreamville/Roc Nation

Label: Dreamville Records/Roc Nation/Interscope Records
Released: May 14

The night before The Off-Season arrived, “no features” was trending on Twitter. J. Cole had just shared a guest-free tracklist, and fans were already digging up old Photoshop files in preparation for another round of “platinum with no features” memes. It was all a fake-out, though. As we soon found out, he was actually just setting us up for a stacked roster full of surprise guests, including 21 Savage, Lil Baby, Morray, 6lack, and Bas. Because for Cole, The Off-Season is all about freeing himself of expectations. You thought he would rap over his own beats again? Nah, this time he teamed up with everyone from Boi-1da to Timbaland to T-Minus. You expected another high-level concept album? Nah, he’s in mixtape mode, proving he can rap his ass off about anything in various styles. You were waiting for him to fall off? Absolutely not. At 36 years old, he pulled off one of the best albums of his career so far.

The Off-Season succeeds because Cole put himself in a place of artistic freedom. Approaching the album like a series of off-season workouts, he attacked the studio with a self-imposed chip on his shoulder, sounding hungrier than we’ve heard him since his early mixtape days. This time around, he avoided the urge to contort himself into a singular stylistic or thematic lane, choosing instead to focus on perfecting the fundamentals. Across the 12-song tracklist, he allows himself to try out new rhyme schemes, talk a lot of shit (have you ever heard Cole sound cockier than he does at the end of “Applying Pressure”?) and even share untold stories (those long-mythologized Diddy fight rumors were true!). In a word, he sounds energized.

Bringing in new sounds from the likes of Lil Baby and Morray paid off big time, seeming to light a fire under him. On The Off-Season, Cole rejects the insular ways that once sequestered him on an island away from the rest of rap. Now, he’s running drills with a whole new generation of elite rappers, and he’s picking up new tricks along the way. All those “J. Cole songs put me to sleep” jokes had a good run, but they carry a lot less weight after hearing him call his adversaries “fuckin’ clowns” and flex about his undeniable success on the opener, “95 South,” which ends with an explosive outro from Cam’ron and Lil Jon. Rapping “I’m on that Mount Rushmore, you n****s can’t front no more” on “100 Mil,” he even manages to get in front of a weeklong Twitter debate that popped up after the album dropped.

At its core, The Off-Season is 12 songs of very high-level rapping from an A-list rapper, which arrived at a time when fans were starved for exactly that. It’s the best album of 2021 so far, and the scary thing is, it might only be a warm-up for what Cole is planning next. If his interviews and Instagram posts are to be believed, The Fall-Off is already right around the corner. —Eric Skelton


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