The POW Best Rap Songs of 2021

The best rap from an otherwise awful year.
By    December 29, 2021

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Even labors of love come at the significant cost of time. This is the result of hundreds of hours of labor. Three editors and dozens of contributors attempting to capture the spirit of the old weird Internet. Should you value what we do, please consider donating to our Patreon. It is the only way we can continue to survive.

As always, the same rules apply: one song per featured artist, “singles” prioritized over deep cuts, American rap only (sorry), West Coast over everything. Your favorite song didn’t make the list because we are spiteful and eccentric creatures. Thanks for reading. We tried. – Ed

100. Spinabenz x Yungeen Ace x FastMoney Goon – “Who I Smoke”
99. EBG Jizzle – “Jizzle Flow”
98. Benny the Butcher x Harry Fraud – “Survivor’s Remorse”
97. Jay Worthy, Dam Funk, Budgie – “Moonlight”
96. YTK – “Let if Off”
95. BMG Boca x SwiftChapo – “Feelin’ Myself”
94. Zaytoven & Fo15 – “All My Guys” (feat. ZayBang & Lil Yee)
93. Shirt & Sharp – “I Eat What I Catch”
92. Banknote x Capolow x Tapri Grams – “Gangstafied (RMX)”
91. SG Ali – “Drank on the Block”
90. YN Jay – “Oxyyyyy”
89. Premrock ft. AJ Suede x Curly Castro – “Joel Osteen”
88. Stove God Cooks – “That’s the Game”
87. Smino – “Rice & Gravy”
86. DB Boutabag – “1st Off”
85. BlueBucksClan – “Come Again”
84. Evidence – “Lost in Time”
83. Yelo Hill – “LA is Not Safe”
82. Fat Tony – “Ain’t For Me”
81. Kevin Gates – “Plug Daughter 2”
80. Breeze Brewin – “Bumpy Johnson”
79. Acito – “Still Jumpin”
78. Young Nudy ft. 21 Savage – “Child’s Play”
77. Los and Nutty – “Heroin Charges”
76. Shootergang Kony – “Cold Game”
75. Reaper Mook – “Up 10”
74. BigWalkDog ft. Pooh Sheisty x Lil Baby – “Whole Lotta Ice”
73. Lloyd Banks – “Crown”
72. Moneybagg Yo – “Time Today”
71. Babyface Ray – “Real N****s Don’t Rap”
70. Babytron – “Day in Ferndale”
69. Shawny Binladen – “Yellow Tears”
68. Band Gang Lonnie Bands – “Anti Motive”
67. Danny Brown – “Dylon”
66. Lil Eazzyy f. G Herbo – “Onna Come Up (Remix)”
65. Valee – “HIMMYimmy”
64. Fredo Bang ft. Durk – “Top Remix”
63. Pink Siifu – “Bussin'”
62. Suga Free x Kokane – “SugaKane”
61. Lice – “Ask Anyone”
60. Nas – “Death Row East”
59. Chris Crack – “False Evidence Appearing Real”
58. ZelooperZ – “Battery”
57. The Koreatown Oddity – “Breastmilk”
56. Polo G feat. Lil Wayne – “Gang Gang”
55. Ka – “I Need All That”
54. Megan Thee Stallion – “Thot Shit”
53. 1100 Himself x Mitchell – “The Set Up (Pt 1)”
52. Westside Gunn featuring Lil Wayne – “Bash Money”
51. Pierre Bourne – “4U”

Fatboi Sharif & Roper Williams featuring Y.L – “Fly Pelican” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Fatboi Sharif’s lyrical scriptures read like the inner workings of an apocalyptic prophet. In Sharif’s purge-like world of contradiction and doom, disease runs rampant, weapons of mass destruction are regularly deployed, and gruesome violence is as routine as walking the dog. A diehard horror film fan, Sharif strives in unhinged chaos. Long before Heath Ledger’s Joker blew up the Gotham hospital, there was Sharif, devilishly grinning while basic institutions burned and crumbled to the ground.

Sharif’s horror stories, while hyperbolic at times, aren’t as illogical as one would suspect, given the hellish nightmare of 2021. Beneath the shocking imagery and blood-curling absurdity is a highly-gifted lyricist whose husky drawl and technical prowess make him one of underground hip-hop’s most eccentric and unpredictable characters. The deluxe edition to 2020’s Gandhi Loves Children – out via POW Records – extends the dystopian lore established with producer Roper Williams, whose glitched-out and soulful production is the ideal vehicle for Sharif’s mythical expeditions to twisted dimensions. On a record full of terror and darkness, “Fly Pelican” stands out as an unexpected celebration. Inexpensive champagne gets poured, clam chowder slurped, and many L’s smoked.

The beat is built around a demented vocal sample ghostly enough to make your skin crawl, a shrill hymn that could soundtrack an exorcist. Organic bass brings the instrumental to life, while Sharif and New York rapper YL –who’s had a momentous year in his own right – are slick talking and stoned, enjoying the good times before the evil creeps back in. Even supervillains deserve to take a load off. – Ross Olson.

Zilla Rocca – “Merv Griffin Enterprises” (Unranked: POW Recordings alum)

Somebody might want to call Zilla Rocca’s family. I’m beginning to worry the man might be broken. As evidenced on this year’s blazer, Vegas Vic, he clearly does not understand the concept of taking it easy or dropping into a lower gear. Look no further than album standout “Merv Griffin Enterprises” to see if I’m wrong. The album marks the stalwart Philly emcee’s first solo project in roughly two years, and his noir sensibilities are in full effect on “MGE.” Rocca is a poet’s rapper, always going dense lyrically, drawing on a lifetime of experiences in the City of Brotherly Love. Though much of his past work has come from a place of disciplined research, this material “just emerged in the process of writing lyrics, whereas in the past I would deliberately set out to tell a specific story based on something I had read or saw or heard about.”

The result is equal parts chronicle of chaos and lyrical romp. Kicking off with an audio clip of a goon admonishing a lackey, Rocca launches the track with fusillade of lyrical dexterity over Friday-the-13th strings, quickly calling out to the rap gods for syndication after years of dedication to the craft before covering such fertile territory as what drinks to buy him at the bar and losing baby fat to avoid the “fatso” nametag. As is his way, ZR brings longtime contributors ALASKA and local hero Curly Castro along for the ride, and the posse effect serves the track well. With differing vocal cadences and styles, the two serve as powerful counterpoints to Zilla’s hosting duties. ALASKA’s higher pitch and scratchier vocals and Castro’s deeper bass proclamations perfectly round out Rocca’s staccato intro and chorus. In various interviews, Zilla has cited Ghostface Killah’s “Iron Swordsman” as inspiration for the track and the album. Tony Starks should be proud. – Chris Daly

U.A.P. – “3D” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

An extraterrestrial visit this year seemed predictable; how it occurred was anything but. Cue the invasion of Earth by Unexplained Aerial Phenomenon (U.A.P.), emitting stardust beats and bars that hit like asteroids, putting E.T. to shame. Rapper Bryson The Alien and psych duo Pioneer 11 went on a cosmic tear this year, dropping four singles under U.A.P. in addition to their independent work. The first of these, “3D,” acts as a sedative to prepare you for abduction. Bryson The Alien spits through the speakers of his spacecraft as Pioneer 11 backs him up with a beat that could power a ship into hyperdrive. Open Mike Eagle is the unsuspecting victim, lamenting on the past year of death and lockdowns before being beamed up into Bryson’s aircraft. A bug-eyed Bryson is the centerpiece of the accompanying music video, flying through space and time as he commits the aforementioned abduction of Open Mike, as well as snagging Pioneer 11 for good measure and more beats to fuel his UFO.

Hip hop and a(t)liens have a long history, and U.A.P. is hellbent on continuing that in unassuming yet psychedelic fashion. This year is just the beginning of the takeover, and “3D” was one hell of a start. I mean, they got Open Mike Eagle on their first single—someone, please, buy that man a beer. If that’s not the beginning of an alien takeover, you tell me what is. – Kevin Crandall

50. Bandmanrill – “Heartbroken”

The Newark rapper Bandmanrill’s song “Heartbroken” feels like having your head shaken by an overenthusiastic stranger at a dingy warehouse party, which in addition to not being a particularly realistic scenario (what kind of drugs would make someone do that specific thing?), is definitely not a thing that will be happening for quite some time due to the resurgence of the Novel Coronavirus™. It makes sense that, despite what its raucous video might suggest, this track got big thanks in part to its popularity on TikTok: producer MCVertt’s uses Jersey Club as the beat’s scaffolding, starting with strings and a stuttering sample before an atomic-level drop hits and Bandmanrill’s all like, “Damn! They got me on some Club shit,” as if even he can’t believe how wild everything’s gotten — the perfect hinge moment for a dance, doing a sick-ass squat in the gym, or whatever else teenagers do these days.

The entire thing’s less than two minutes long and it’s absolutely perfect, everything else Bandmanrill’s released since has either been more extremely tight Jersey Club stuff plus this one freestyle over Redman’s “Tonight’s Da Night,” and if a major label so much as thinks as trying to convince this kid to get in the studio with Cashmere Cat then I am going to be incredibly sad. RIP Drakeo, enjoy the rest of the list. – Drew Millard

49. Skyzoo – “Bed-Stuy is Burning”

The ghost of Biggie is omnipresent, we all know this. On Skyzoo’s emotive “Bed Stuy Is Burning” the refrain “Where Brooklyn At?” is reconstituted, with the question being answered by truths Biggie couldn’t have foretold. What was once a siren call is now a warning to address the inequities of gentrification. “Please [fill in the city] don’t let this happen to you…” Skyzoo repeats, citing LA, Chicago, and Detroit among others.

Off this year’s All The Brilliant Things, a vivid release that plays like vignettes from a Spike Lee joint, this lead single is a jolt of realism anchored by subtle horns and Skyzoo’s adept writing. The video depicts scenes from the neighborhood as well as the looming displacement for those who built the community and its culture. Between scenes of antique shops and bodegas, we see “For Sale” and “Brownstone Restoration” signs. Amid stray observations, says Skyzoo: “As true as you and me, there’s a mayor on every block.”

Skyzoo is in his late 30s and was born in Crown Heights before moving to Bed-Stuy. He bore witness firsthand of the things he describes. Chopped cheese and chicken wings at bodegas. The working class waiting at bus stops. The song feels like a living document made by a true inhabitant of the space, one who abhors what’s become of Christopher Wallace’s neighborhood. In the video, the camera zooms in on Skyzoo’s jacket with a patch that reads “Defend Brooklyn.” Refreshingly, it feels like Skyzoo is the type of cat who’d “defend all those who need defending.” – David Ma

48. Young Thug – “Die Slow”

When the music history podcasters of the future broadcast straight to your chip-implanted brain to tell you that 2021 was the year that drum-less, loop-based rap took over the mainstream they will likely forget to mention “Die Slow.” They will neglect to acknowledge the perfect example of an artist taking that concept and pushing it to unforeseen limits of creativity and experimentation. As Punk’s opening track, “Die Slow” is a mood-setter. A guitar strums individual notes in a repetitive pattern. Background vocals fade in and out. Echo and reverb provide depth. But the song at its core is just that guitar loop and Young Thug’s voice. No drums, as the trend goes. Young Thug differs from, say, Griselda, though. Whereas those rappers’ voices often play a percussive role to compensate for the lack of kicks and snares on a song, Young Thug’s voice is another instrument altogether. Almost like a guitar performing a meandering improvised solo, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s more than that, and wholly unique to him. A voice that talks and sings and raps in an unpredictable cadence. That stretches and contorts and ducks in and out of every possible melodic and rhythmic nook of the song’s soundscape.

“Die Slow” is an intentional turn toward the emotional and introspective. Thug goes from talking about low key really seeing people pass by on boats from the window of the penthouse suite in Italy, to missing his son’s birthday, to congratulating himself for not sipping too much lean on tour, to recounting a few tragic family stories of his youth, coughing and starting over mid-sentence. Those are just the spoken parts, which weave in and around the singing and rapping. The song feels like an intimate peek inside the complicated brain of an artist who reached age 30 in 2021 but continues to push and develop. It’s a breezy and beautiful song, but nothing about it is easy. – Will Hagle

47. Open Mike Eagle & Armand Hammer – “Burner Account”

Mike Eagle has earned a ton of prestige for hosting Comedy Central shows and podcasts and crafting artful high concept musical masterpieces, so it’s an increasingly rare treat to simply hear him black out over a dope beat. Dropping around the time that he announced a tour with rap superduo Armand Hammer, “Burner Account” finds Eagle teaming up with billy woods and Elucid for an ad-hoc Haram victory lap—over a crushing beat courtesy of Quelle Chris, splitting the difference between ominous, Mingus-esque scribbles and overheating home appliances.

Its opening verse is rife with Eagle’s penchant for shrewd social commentary crouched in absurdist humor. He ponders selling dope to Martians to avoid the human cost of the trade, he reminisces about getting his cardio in running from LAPD. He surveys the body horror of dudes hiding behind wires trying to avoid vaccines and dangerous-sounding growth procedures procured from YouTube. Elucid and woods trade off stanzas for their half, the latter’s blunted observations making way for the former’s metronomic, precise cadences; cycling between sadistically feeding dogs chocolate, running them telekeys, the philosophical career approach of Stephen A. Smith, bones being dragged through the garden.

As the names most associated with the art-rap subgenre ascend to unprecedented levels of visibility, it has shifted from curio on the margins to celebrated expression of the dense, the abstract, the impressionistic. But that doesn’t mean they can’t rap their fucking asses off. – Martin Douglas

46. Tr3yway6K ft. Ese Face x Poke- “The Hoovas”

The Hoover Criminals have a chip on their shoulder after years of being considered one of LA’s most hated gangs. Infighting among the Crips in the ‘80s led to two factions being born: The Gangster Crips and The Neighborhood Crips. The former eventually dropped the Crip moniker all together to become the Hoover Criminals, sworn enemies of both Blood and Crip sets. Schoolboy Q is probably the most famous Hoover to make it as a rapper and they have historically felt underrepresented in the hip-hop community.

This year, a new generation of Hoover Criminals began racking up views on Youtube by releasing a number of street singles that couldn’t have come from anywhere but the corners of Hoover and Manchester. “The Hoovas” is a collaboration between Tr3yway6k, Ese Face and Poke, and acts as a decent introduction to a section of LA rap long deserving of its flowers. The beat sounds like a Soundcloud version of a DJ Mustard song, which only adds to its charm. The video is all gang propaganda, beginning with close-ups of gang graffiti tagged on a metal gate. The Hoovers rock Orange rags to show gang affiliation and have adopted the Houston Astros orange as their go-to threads. Tr3yway6k is the immediate stand-out, sounding hungrier than ever talking about the subject he knows best.

The relationship between LA hip-hop and gang culture has always been strong. Some of the city’s biggest artists have proudly flaunted their gang ties, while others have worked to distance themselves from their respective hoods. So while gang culture feels ever present, “The Hoovas” succeeds partially due to its specificity. It feels like we’re being let in on a neighborhood squabble; and in a way we are, except this neighborhood squabble produced a song too good for even rivals to ignore. – Donny Morrison

45. Enchanting – “Want Sum”

For someone who has put together an impressive catalogue in a relatively short amount of time, Enchanting doesn’t sound like she’s in any rush. The German-born, Ft. Worth-raised spitter quickly has gone from the self-admitted “little baby” coo of her debut mixtape, Love & Drugs, to find a powerful, unhurried approach seen on 2021 standout single, “Want Sum. Maybe it was the Gucci Mane co-sign and subsequent signing to his New 1017 crew, but Enchanting slowly but surely is finding a lane that suits her R&B meets trap meets neo-soul meets the blues sound.

The 22-year-old eschews hard enunciation for a slurred purr, hitting the beat with more of a drawl than hard consonants. Consider this the audio opposite of crisp, but make no mistake, her style is no less powerful for the divergence. Enchanting occupies a similar lane to Cardi B. or maybe Lil’ Wayne, utilizing vocal tics and tricks to create a singular sound: “pound” becomes “pown,” “want some” is “whan sum.” Enchanting, however, is no one-trick pony, as the rapid-fire delivery of the track’s second verse, coupling “freebies,” “BBs” and “VVs,” further demonstrates just how far she’s come in the few short years she’s been on the scene.

The song itself serves as a power statement, demonstrating both a mastery of flow and strength of presence that many rappers with twice her experience still struggle to accomplish. Matching her vocals, the track plays over underwater strings, dragged and delayed just long enough to sound reminiscent of DJ Screw at his most twisted, but still is its own thing that you’re going to want to hear more of. The title clearly is rhetorical. The answer is yes. – Chris Daly

44. Hook – “Uber Therapy”

Hook is a reflection of the limitless creative freedom offered to those raised in the age of DatPiff mixtapes and pirated music. Her early days in Riverside, California were spent listening to Slick Rick and chopped-n-screwed mixtapes during long drives with her father. She flaunts an infectious bravado, uses clever turns of phrase, boasts an unhinged energy, and breaks song structures like a natural descendent of Lil B. But instead of sanding her edges down, she sharpens them: droning ad-libs, uproarious yelling, singing that signals a based SWV. it’s all a part of Hook’s stylistic kaleidoscope.
“Uber Therapy” gives an outlet for Hook to embrace her inner ODB: a free spirit wizard of bending the English language who expresses themselves without filters. But unlike ODB, Hook is not this impenetrable being who could care less about what others think. She uses an Uber driver as a vessel to vent her frustrations with society. The fake smiles, disingenuous small talk and backhanded compliments we use to get through the day are giving her fits. In past interviews she’s talked about personal difficulties with saying exactly how she feels to people, using music to tell her full truth.

While she’s known for unwavering confidence in her songs, the truth is Hook is just as confused, annoyed and bothered as the rest of us. The best moments on “Uber Therapy” occur when she balances moments of vulnerability (“I hate when I don’t know exactly what to do”) with levity (“I can’t sit by you n****s, all y’all smell). The more gripes Hook gets to speak about freely, the more the listener understands her plight. Hook has said she hates when people compare her music to others. With “Uber Therapy,” she transcends her influences, graduating to the provocative trendsetter she’s always been capable of becoming. – Josh Svetz

43. Kay Flock – “Is Ya Ready”

The most obvious transformation in New York drill this year was the influx of Wayne Wonder and Lauryn Hill samples. Producers decided they could sample pretty much anything from their childhood and throw a drill bassline under it (and they occasionally struck gold). But audio gimmicks won’t save a genre. New York drill has always been about the voice, and the best of the year–the teenager Kay Flock–didn’t come from Brooklyn, but the Bronx.

In his first full-year rapping, Kay Flock churned out local hits at will, namely the massive posse cut “Brotherly Love” and the XXXTentacion-sampling “Being Honest.” But the record that stood out most was “Is Ya Ready.” Remember 808Melo’s choirs from the Meet The Woo tapes? “Is Ya Ready” rips a choir straight from a DaBaby song, trading the gothic tones of the old drill for a devilish grin, like you’re going to get your brain splattered in Squid Game. Kay Flock navigates the beat on a mission, dissing rappers by name and casting them into a tornado of gunshot ad libs. He can really rap–hear how he bobs and weaves around this beat–but he’s also a presence, somewhere between G Herbo and Tay-K, a voice you won’t forget. “Is Ya Ready” is sparse, it’s uncomfortable, it’s slick and cartoonish–it’s a new era of New York drill. – Mano Sundaresan

42. G Perico x Rucci – “Keep Killin”

Sure, Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” was the creation of a couple of New York art-school punks (Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz), that went on to be sweet ambrosia to everyone from Mariah to Mark Morrison, but those tweaked synthesizers and wah wah guitars just flow differently on the West Coast. Maybe there was an inevitability that a song once part of every Los Angeles DJ’s vinyl crate should be resurrected by G Perico, a man who has never rejected his role as a spiritualist of retro grooves—in fact, he’s taken pride in being seen as a link to L.A. music history. Perico’s biggest year since 2017 might have shown more sides to his artistry—there were multiple projects, guest spots, one of his best-ever singles in “Spazz”—but the Crip-affiliated star’s biggest hit simplified the formula to atoms and molecules. “Keep Killin” is two minutes of raps over the “Genius of Love” instrumental with very little extra dressing. Never before has Perico sounded so straight out of the Delorean, if one powered not by a flux capacitor, but Shaq-sized handclaps and a subwoofer-bursting drum thump. The sound is a bit lossy, like the track is being played on the street corner not by a ghetto blaster but smaller portable radio, but that doesn’t matter if you appreciate the simplicity of the framework.

The familiar music is matched by stress-tested themes: money, jewelry, dope raids, and crippin’, which is fine, everyone knows why we’re here and it’s not for left-field lyricacism. Perico is joined by Inglewood’s Rucci, who echoes Tom Tom Club’sTom Tom Club’s original refrain, “What you gonna do when you get out of jail?/I’m gonna have some fun.” Their voices make for ideal counterweights, which is particularly valued given the small number of elements we’re working with here. Revivalism is sometimes at its best when it’s got a sense of levity. That’s genius. – Dean Van Nguyen

41. Sauce Twinz – “On Sauce”

Sauce is liquor, sauce is lean, sauce is drip, sauce is swag, but really, sauce is a state of mind. The Sauce Twinz out of Houston have embodied the raucous style of living, rapping, dressing, and dancing to the fullest extent over the last more than half-decade with their homegrown Sauce movement. Out of the “Sauce Factory” label created by Sauce Walka, they’ve spawned countless artists who are more clergyman than rapper. In an interview with the Houston Press in 2015, Walka explained, “We walked out the church house one day and felt we had a word to serve. We don’t rap, we preach.”

“On Sauce” is a spiritual campfire kumbaya sermon. Walka and Sancho, who are brothers, but not actually twins, light the fire and the large ensemble gathered round feels the hook coursing through their bodies like the holy spirit is overtaking them. With the power of the sauce propelling them, the chant that goes “On Sauuuuuccceeee, Ooweeeeeee” fills the air and invites all strangers, passerbys, tired, and poor to join the festivities. The delicate, leaned out beat is the canvas for Sancho to slowly churn out bars like Kyle “Slow Mo” Anderson patiently surveying the shifts in opposing team’s defense, looking for his moments to glide to the hoop. This beat presumably made by an in-house TSF producer is a lay-up for Walka and Sancho, as they warble through their gold grills about pimping from the 30th floor and their twin Rolls Royces; it’s amplified by Walka’s emphatic onomatopoeic sound effects. A full-on sauce baptism. – Harley Geffner

40. Young Slo-Be – “Stay On Point”

Young Slo-Be is the last person I’d want haunting my dreams. Whether it’s on a beat or in your subconscious, you never know where he’s at. It’s like if Freddie Krueger were from Stockton, California but instead of knives for fingers he’s got a pistol and is threatening to tear you a new asshole.

“Stay On Point” is the menacing opener to Young Slo-Be’s Halloween-themed record Nightmare on Seventh Street. Much like the late, great Bris, Young Slo-Be is a master at building tension within a beat. You can never tell when exactly he’s going to start rapping and when he does it’s patient and measured compared to Stockton-alum and frequent collaborators EBK Young Joc and EBK Jaaybo. His vocals come in sounding like dispatches from a little devil on your shoulder. His slow-paced delivery simulates the feeling of a perpetual cliffhanger, never sure where exactly he’s going. It’s Northern California’s answer to the brand of nervous rap pioneered by Drakeo The Ruler, who worked with Young Slo-Be on “Unforgivable,” from the August album Slo-Be Bryant 3.

Although he’s been making music since before 2019, Young Slo-Be solidified himself as one of Stockton’s most consistent new artists this year by dropping three projects of new material and a slew of videos. He has a distinct style that sounds like nothing else coming out of the West Coast. “Stay On Point” encapsulates the best qualities of Young Slo-Be while also adding depth to one of the most interesting regional scenes in hip-hop. – Donny Morrison

Rhys Langston – hos on my dick ‘cuz I look like a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Described by one Stereogum user as: “if Busdriver was on 4-Chan,” Rhys Langston soared over heads while molding rap, post-punk, and garage rock, into a torrential downpour of interrogation and cynicism. Being blasphemous is pretty easy; personifying blasphemy is a much harder task.

For putting out what has got to be the most contentious song title of the year (with a close runner up being the next song on the album, ‘the pope is a(n unrepentant) rapist’), Langston approaches his work with meticulousness and caution. Most artists won’t put out an eight paragraph statement delving into the concept and philosophy behind a controversial song—Langston did, and it’s pretty damn thorough. He describes the title as asking “if I were more stupid and brazen and controversial, might more people pay attention to me than when I were subtle and careful?” The essence of the song is controversy, and “how it attracts hos,” or “the rap convention communicating some masculinist desirability” as Langston explains it.

Blasphemy aside, the singular verse on ‘hos on my dick ‘cuz I look like a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad’ sounds like a punk garage band fucking around with wordplay in the best way possible. Langston raises his feature price to afford avocado toast, vapes on a bidet, and disavows settler colonialism, all while plucking on the electric bass in his makeshift home studio in L.A. The simple drum kit grounds the track, and the laser-like synths that fly in and out give the perfect backing to Langston’s ruminations.

Personification of blasphemy to showcase society’s obsession with controversy and unabashed stupidity. You may not agree with Langston’s opinions, but he never fails to get the point across with wit and damnation. – Kevin Crandall

39. Reese Youngn – “Warrior”

Much has been made of the rising dominance of “sad rap”, whether the emo-indebted lyricism and fashion of mall punks like the late Juice WRLD and Trippie Redd, or the bluesy trap singsongs of Rod Wave and Polo G. But each of those artists still impart a sense of disaffected cool that requires you to infer the pain beyond the numbness. For my money, no rapper actually sounded as sad in 2021 as Reese Youngn. Going viral for operating fully in a tear-choked croak – and applying said voice to the definitive remix of Coi Leroy’s endlessly jumped “No More Parties.” The 22-year-old Pittsburgh rapper comes off hungry, both as in ambitious, and like he may literally be dying of starvation in the booth. He twisted the gentle twinkle of “No More Parties” into the most drunken sounding lament since the back half of Kendrick’s “u”. And he’s since employed that delirious bleat on a majority of his singles since.

Within his breakneck breakout year, no moment stood out more so than “Warrior”, in which he pushes his trademark into such illegibility that the video comes with subtitles. Reese’s vocals live in the reds, and by the end of the song you can hear his throat genuinely catch as the beat fades and he delivers the final lines in breathless acapella. His presence carries a genuine weight that is both intoxicating and deeply affecting, making what could come across like a gimmick land instead like a singular star-quality, more Bruiser Wolf than 645AR. But it goes beyond the unique timbre of his instrument. Where many of his peers use their songwriting to reflect on having overcome adversity, Reese raps as though he’s still within the fight, each bar retaining the force of the blow-by-blow as they felt in real time. – Pranav Trewn

38. Ebk Jaaybo – “Street Love Song (PTSD)”

Even as he’s trying to open up, EBK JaayBo’s paranoia animates “Street Love Song.” From the jump, his delivery is numbing and invulnerable. He talks about his feelings, the loved ones he’s laid to rest and the violence that surrounds him, but it mostly serves as a redoubling of street codes, the reminder to never leave the house without your gun. The beat sounds like something gentle enough for a sympathetic deep-dive into his trauma, but this isn’t therapy; there’s no healing to be found here. While Stockton rap borrows from nervous music and nearby influences in Sacramento and the Bay, the city’s best rappers have popularized a whispering flow that traffics in menace at low decibels. JaayBo’s take on the style throughout “Street Love Song” and his sample-laden mixtape Letter 4 the Streets allows more emotion to show through, but the implied threat is never absent. It’s equal parts confessional and a warning that he’s always packing.

This time last year, JaayBo was just getting out of jail from a sentence that he started serving in late 2019 when he was 15 years old. Just days before the release of Streets in July, he was arrested again. Now 17 or perhaps 18, it isn’t just the harsh realities in his music but the way he tries to navigate them that is so compelling. Even as he dreams about “drilling every human moving,” JaayBo wants to build something better for his future kids. Stockton is one of the poorest cities in America, as well as one with the highest rates of violent crime. Even after exiting bankruptcy in 2015, public disinvestment in the city’s many racialized communities continues to leave specific hoods without resources, including the southeast side where JaayBo comes from. Against forces like these, therapy alone can’t really hope to win. That’s what the gun is for. – Kevin Yeung

37. Young Dolph & Key Glock – “What U See Is What U Get”

Young Dolph’s music was filled with expensive cars, flashy watches, lots of sex, endless celebration with friends, soul-stirring reflections on his past, his love for the ones who came up with him, and a sense of never forgetting (and always giving back to) where he came from. At its best, it was all of these things at once. His collabs with Key Glock are the clearest example—motivating, braggadocios, and stellar at making you feel like you could join them both at the top of the world. The two cousins constantly one-up each other, offering progressively bigger and bigger flexes that swallow up everything around them like a katamari and keep on rolling until there’s nothing left but their jewelry. “What u see is what u get”, the second single off Dolph’s not-quite-final album after his retirement and subsequent un-retirement, is no different, showing how both of the unmistakably-Memphis rappers can easily bounce from hilarious punchlines to serious ruminations and back again.

From the moment it starts, the song feels like a victory lap for Dolph and his legacy—plenty of rappers can claim we’ve all heard about them, but few can say it knowing that it’s true. He shifts from declaring his allegiance to his family (a loose word for Dolph, as he explains; everyone close to him is family, his only friends are Franklin and Jackson) to remembering the ones he’s lost before pivoting to bragging about his jewelry, a girl whose name he doesn’t remember, and exclusively seeing “a big bag of money” when he looks in the mirror. But it’s Glock who steals the show, buying a Lamborghini-priced watch he “parked on his wrist” while he wears yellow diamonds (but only while pissing) and declaring that he knows you’ve heard about him, cause your girl definitely has. There’s no one better Dolph could’ve chosen to carry the torch. – Marco Kane

36. Yeat – “Sorry Bout That”

Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red ushered in a new wave of auto-tune-wielding artists that are hell bent on the rockstar aesthetic of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Rage production is identified by its screaming synths that sound like exploding digitized bombs. Rage is turn-up music, made for college parties and what’s left of DIY punk venues. It’s filled with angst and copious amounts of exotic weed and lean.

Following a couple of viral moments on Tik Tok during the summer, a Drake Co-sign, and a closet full of designer turbans, Yeat has become the new face of rage music. The 21-year-old from Portland separates himself from Ken Car$on’s auto-tune deadpan, Destroy Lonely’s Uzi-inspired melodies, and Sofaygo’s vocal range. Yeat’s raps are shapeless and unorthodox; one minute he’ll monotonously rap “All my diamonds flawless and big, look at the size,” completely unfazed. The next minute he’s effortlessly crooning about an Arcteryx jacket and Issey Miyake jeans.

On “Sorry Bout That,” off his 4L mixtape, he raps about his struggles with addiction, justifying the drug use by highlighting that everything in his life is sad. Then later he’s getting off the phone with his jeweler for a brand new diamond cuban link chain.

While on the surface Yeat’s music is fun and charismatic, the themes of depression and drug dependency and its morality hang the cusp of his verses. He represents a generation fixated on the next hussle and instant gratification, the modern-day American dream. – Anthony Malone

35. 42 Dugg ft. Roddy Rich – “4DaGang”

Don’t let the glam metal sample and thumping drums here throw you off—“4 Da Gang” is as much an anguished, heartfelt tribute to friends living and dead as it is a ferocious banger. Here, Detroit newcomer 42 Dugg takes a page from Future’s 2017 track of the same name, penned in remembrance of Hendrix’s vocal producer who’d died suddenly that same year. “Put the city on my back, still remember hard times/ 2018 was the year my dawg died,” 42 wails, while firming up his loyalty to his city and hometown crew. He’s joined by Compton rap singer Roddy Ricch, who here gives his most dynamic performance since 2019’s “Ballin,’” taking stock of his success as a TikTok-viral superstar while never neglecting the L.A. streets he rose from (“I see by the C-side, I throw it up two times”).

The duo fuse their styles to craft a saga of pain and gain that’s both exciting and harrowing—yet stays true to their respective roots. The beat, from Texan producer TayTayMadeIt, is irresistible and fast-paced, giving the two rappers a backdrop that hits just the sweet spot: energetic, but neither overwhelming nor gratuitously noisy. That attention to detail is important, because after all, 42 doesn’t want you to forget that “4 Da Gang,” like the other tracks on his latest mixtape Free Dem Boyz, is about, and ultimately for, his friends behind bars: “All my songs are about freeing somebody. I really made it about my people in jail and my loved ones that ain’t here with me,” he told Complex. The sounds of “4 Da Gang” can be taken to the club, of course—but the circumstances that birthed them remain unforgotten. – Nitish Pahwa

34. Maxo Kream – “Mama’s Purse”

Life’s cruelest ironies often interject themselves into overdue moments of triumph, where unlikely success stories should be celebrated rather than tainted. It’s a tragedy as old as hip-hop itself: overcoming insurmountable odds to obtain financial freedom for yourself and those around you, only to find wealth cannot mend fractured relationships, erase destructive pasts, or soften deeply-rooted familial trauma. 31-year-old Maxo Kream, one of hip-hop’s most incisive wordsmiths, raps with an unflinching sense of realism sharpened by the streets of his native Houston.

On his 2021 offering, Weight of the World, a weathered Maxo searches for normalcy after a storm of grief, heartache and paranoia. The magnitude feels enormous. He lost his brother to gun violence, his grandmother was hospitalized with Covid, and he’s a new father to a baby girl. Maxo learned to live with this weight, and maintained a razor-sharp focus on what’s important: growing his business empire, taking his music to new heights, and providing for the people around him. But the increased cash flow can unquestioningly change things. Maxo briefly explored this topic in the past, notably on “Change,” but WOTW standout, “MAMA’s PURSE” takes these revelations to visceral new heights. The first verse underscores a tragic twist of fate, detailing how his mother used to shoplift luxurious clothing to keep her kids fresh at school. Now, Maxo can buy her whatever she wants, but it’s a temporary distraction from the scarring of the past, where pained memories of familial addiction, incarceration and death still haunt their realities.

The production features a twinkling set of keys reminiscent of a music box, a nostalgic touch to a song that unpacks a tormented family lineage. “I can take our mugshots and make a portrait of the family” Maxo bleakly notes. Maxo found the strength to keep going despite his aching burdens, and sometimes that’s all we can do. – Ross Olson

33. Injury Reserve – “Knees”

Stepa J. Groggs died at the young age of 32 in June of 2020. He was a husband and a father to four children. The news of his passing was heartbreaking, but with “Knees” as the first single to Groggs’s last album with Injury Reserve, his fans were given one last opportunity to engage with the oldest member of the group. He was truly a father figure, explaining how to brush off the steps on the long road to happiness. He was the living embodiment of love, forgiveness, and excelsior.

You can hear Ritchie with a T’s supposed grandma telling him that one day he’ll grow into the shoes she gave him, but as he replies to the audio clip, his voice is marked with anxiousness. He clamors with worry, scared that he’s done growing once-and-for-all. In the first verse, he yearns for growth, pleading for help of any kind. Groggs then comes in for his last verse on both the song and the album, where he sheds light on his battle with alcohol addiction. For Groggs, beauty persists in the face of fear and desperation. He’s proud of his dreads; dreads that symbolize life and experience. Groggs’s verse pushes Ritchie with a T to change the chorus later in the song, bellowing that his knees hurt because he’s growing; they don’t hurt when he grows, but as he continues to grow.

Parker Corey pushes the trio to be as introspective and personal as possible through his instrumentation. He pushes boundaries within their lane of experimental hip-hop by incorporating the shoegaze-like heaviness of prog-rock, sampling and looping black midi’s eerie single, “Sweater.” Injury Reserve is mangled, yet still as refined as ever – adding drum kicks, distortion and dissonance to what sounds like the last round of applause after the performance of a lifetime. “Knees” will forever be the poignant, posthumous echo of Groggs. It serves as a reminder that you’re never too old to grow; a reminder that although growth can be a grueling and painful process, it’s never unattainable. – Yousef Srour

32. Rx Papi – “A Man Apart (Intervention)”

Half of Rx Papi’s best songs sound like he showed up to his family’s house for dinner and was met with a surprise intervention, but instead of going to treatment he went straight to the studio. He’s addicted to opiates and isolated from his family – but he has his reasons.

On “A Man Apart (Intervention),” Rx Papi shows us glimpses of his familial trauma without lingering too long, rattling off decades worth of transgressions as if he were running out of time in therapy and wanted to make sure to get his money’s worth. The production, provided by Noisy Neighbors, slowly builds to match Rx Papi’s intensity. By the end of the song he sounds exhausted, as if the weight of his thoughts have accumulated in real time. His mother resents him for reminding her of his father; his aunt resents him for reasons Papi can’t quite discern, but he doesn’t let it get to him; and he resents his entire family for not believing in his music career. Rx Papi’s worldview seems to be shaped by this perceived abandonment and it’s a small miracle that he’s still able to be vulnerable at all as opposed to shutting down completely.

The song opens Rx Papi’s album 100 Miles & Walk’in, released in March, and actually reminds me of Notorious B.I.G’s “Suicidal Thoughts,” the closer from his classic 1994 debut, Ready To Die. Both songs are confessional without being self-serving. Papi makes no attempt to cloak his antisocial behavior in victimhood. Instead he’s able to speak honestly about wounds that will never heal, seeking personal atonement instead of mass appeal. Lesser artists take the easy way out by disguising their strife in a layer of self-serving mythologizing. Rx Papi isn’t afraid to admit when he’s his own biggest enemy. – Donny Morrison

31. Ralfy the Plug ft. Drakeo the Ruler – “That’s A Awful Lot of Stincs”

Released in March, Rapper Overnight 2 was a foundational welcome home tape for South Central’s Ralfy The Plug, and “That’s A Awful Lot of Stincs” was an immediate standout. Ralfy previously spent nearly three years locked up on minor burglary and credit card fraud charge ramped up by bullshit gang enhancements.

“Gang in this bitch, don’t get flatlined,” Ralfy repeats the chorus like a mantra, an emphatic truth given the scope of what it carries to be one of the guys here. Now, freed from the clutches of the carceral system, Ralfy raps with the ease of answering a Facetime or talking shit on 2K. New baguettes grace the neck and wrists. When the light hits, you’d think a strobe light hit a disco ball. Produced by Fizzle and Al B Smoov, who have crafted some of the sparser, more colorful beats for the Stincs

The video follows the crew as they stroll sidewalks and pour up in front of Chinatown’s Thien Hau Temple. Matt Ryan and Rami in the mood board. Desto Dubb laces everyone with pieces from his Awful Lot of clothing line. Simple but effective, the video immerses you into an afternoon with the 2Greedy Family. It’s a mellow, celebratory banger. Drakeo winces at threats and boasts about sweeping the street for trash like a truck. No longer subjected to the grotesque dungeons of LA County Jail, they are free to pose for pictures and bang their newest loudly. I imagine, deep in the nightmares of solitary confinement, scenes like this played out as motivation. Long Live Ketchy The Great and Drakeo the Ruler. – Evan Gabriel

30. Kanye West featuring Jay Electronica & The LOX – “Jesus Lord Pt. 2”

Kanye West’s grandiose Donda rollout was more than just an unprecedented display of performance art. It further demonstrated how he’s maintained a stronghold on popular culture at large, despite lacking the artistic inventiveness he was once known for. The second listening event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium shattered Apple Music streaming records, crowds risked Covid infections for overpriced merchandise, STEM players sold like crypto coins (probably by the same demographic), and tens of thousands lined up to hear a (still) unfinished-sounding record.

Consumers of art have trouble accepting the mortality of once-cherished icons (I know LeBron’s inevitable decline will crush me), and the last five lackluster years of Kanye’s career has led many down a road of denial. But even in the frustratingly ordinary half-decade since The Life of Pablo – West’s last great record – fragments of transcendence still trickle out of each release (thank god for “Ghost Town”). While bloated and at times boring, Donda is no exception. While it’s inexplicable how the Andre 3000-assisted “Life of the Party” was left off the standard release, at least we got “Jesus Lord pt. 2,” the spiritual posse cut with Jay Electronica and the LOX, fresh off their monumental Verzuz appearance at MSG.

In his best verse in years, West delivers a sobering monologue on the afterlife, drug-addicted households, and violent gang-fueled revenge. West is refreshingly human and vulnerable, conveying clear-eyed introspection on bitterly-neglected communities and the struggle to stay hopeful. Donda’s passing left an unfillable void in Kanye’s world, and the raw grief of “Jesus Lord” comes when he contemplates suicide for the chance to see her again. These bare ruminations on the lowest form of the human condition are strikingly real and make an oft out-of-touch character feel relatable. We end up wishing these moments weren’t so rare. – Ross Olson

Kent Loon, Chester Watson, Valee – “The Mist” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

At its worst, 2021 felt like one of those years where rap runs out of steam before an inevitable rebuilding phase: think backpack rap falling off a cliff in the mid-2000s, or the New York mainstream crumbling under the weight of Jay clones a few years later. In 2021, it felt like trap – a word that’s lost all meaning – began to run out of ideas, as listeners couldn’t escape yet another barraged of emotionally stunted robots reminiscing over their lives in plainspeak.

Consider Kent Loon and Chester Watson the antidote: a duo complimenting each other so thoroughly that I’m half-tempted to jack the Yin Yang Twins for their group name to bestow it on Florida’s finest. On “The Mist,” the duo don’t so much rely on a secret sauce so much as a few key spices, transforming a mournful minor key beat and kief-speckled flows into something greater through the sheer power of their chemistry. Kent sets it off, keeping things dead eyed and hazy, before setting Chester up for the alley oop. What sets their performance on “The Mist” apart from their peers however, is the care and craft in each word – the song serving as a constant reminder that “hey – lyricists don’t HAVE to flow over 2nd rate Griselda beats, and that trap verses need not be a pile of madlibs.” Then there’s Chicago’s Valee, GOOD Music’s best kept secret in exile, who gleefully shuts shit down with a scene-stealing final verse, proving for the umpteenth time that he really deserves better than to be a Kanye fallback plan.

Rappers: if you don’t want your CEO roaming around arena locker rooms or all up in your videos, come to POW Recordings. – Son Raw

29. Bruiser Wolf – “Dope Game $tupid”

It’s fitting that everything Bruiser Wolf says sounds like a question. Because that’s the proximate feeling you get listening to his music. Is this real? Is this a bit? Can rap really sound like this (sound like this)?

That’s not fair to Wolf of course, because his music isn’t a joke. It’s frequently devastating in fact, as in the case of “Momma Was a Dopefiend,” where the questions he’s asking seem to be directed at God.

The deepest Wolf gets on “Dope Game $tupid” into his tragic backstory is to say that the dope game is, well, stupid. Here he’s just trying to make you crack up: he’s buying his hookup’s son some chicken tenders and a fidget spinner, or referencing arcane Michigan traffic laws, or delivering an indecipherable punchline and then musing on whether we’ll get that line in about a month. (We did not.)

His voice—a cartoon pimp trying his hand at close-up magic—is indebted to but not swiped from Suga Free. He’s got one of the most inventive flows in the game–wordy, artesian, threatening to tip over at any moment. And as strange as his flow is, it’s all the more impressive that it bears no resemblance to the battering ram dick-slapper flow pioneered by fellow Detroiters like Rio da Yung OG (free him) and Sada Baby. He also sounds nothing like Danny Brown—the man who signed him, and whose Bruiser Brigade has had such a successful first year that it’s risen above being called a “vanity label.”

It reminds me of the first time I heard Tom Waits—I was probably 13—on a late night music video show on MTV2. It was the video for “God’s Away on Business.” I had no idea what to make of it. None of it seemed possible: Waits’s ashcan bark, the cabaret of the damned accompaniment, all those ostriches. “This can’t be music,” my 13-year-old brain argued. “You can’t do this.” For a while I wondered if I’d hallucinated it.

But Tom Waits can do whatever the fuck he wants. And so apparently can Bruiser Wolf. – Jordan Ryan Pedersen

28. Wiki – “Roof”

In conversation with Ross Olson for POW, Wiki mentions “Roof” was indeed written from atop his rooftop, an oasis from a deeply suffocating pandemic summer. Like any knowing author, Wiki makes sure to cover the five Ws. The structure is familiar, an alternation between the present (the cityscape above, New Yorkers dotting the street like ants) and the past (skating on the block, rapping at parties, unemployment). Wiki’s name and works have been synonymous with New York dating back to his iconic work with Hak and Sporting Life as part of RATKING, but the sonic landscape of choice then was colder and more industrial, deafening clanking subways and puffers. The vision of New York that Wiki reminisces upon, sketches out, and utters prayers for here is still definitively in the first-person but allows itself more warmth.

I saw Navy Blue play with AKAI SOLO in a basement in Brooklyn this summer, running through some of the highlights from last year’s excellent Song of Sage: Post Panic and Navy’s Reprise a couple weeks after Half God was announced. When Navy was playing, the show was as meditative and intimately conversational as any rap show I’ve been to — practically a poetry slam, each word in each bar pronounced carefully, songs punctuated by sips of water. Towards the end Navy had Wiki sprint out for “Roof” and “Remarkably” in what Wiki mentioned was his first live performance in years, and he was both electrifying and suffocating in his intensity, each bar a gasp.

In many ways, “Roof” is the thematic center of the album it appears on — it’s easy to read Half God more broadly as a borderline concept piece centered on New York, and “Roof” is arguably the most explicitly Wiki engages with the city. But even as that’s true, the line that he cut out the music for live and delivered loudest is buried in the middle: “I need to be scorned by the lord/Four Hail Marys, hopefully I’ll get saved for it/When I feel my head, shit, I feel horns.” Live, “Roof” had an air of strangled pain that the studio version either eschews or chooses to suppress in favor of a tone slightly hopeful and inviting. Wiki’s inner conflict around New York — both a lost home and a refuge — feels like a lens into Wiki both as he drowns and as he finds old roots and new stability. – Sun-Ui Yum

27. MO3 & OG Bobby Billions – “Outside (Better Days)”

MO3 was often anointed as the Boosie of Dallas. Being heralded in that regard in the south comes with a lot of expectation; it means you’re a voice of a generation, someone who understands the nuance and code required to survive in the southern streets. For MO3, the comparison was apt. The weight Boosie held in Louisiana, MO3 had in Dallas, a city that that supported his bid to transcend regionality. The weight soul in his voice bridged the gaps between the earnest blues of BB King and street anthems from Webbie and his mentor Boosie. MO3 often worried about something Boosie once expressed in a DJ Vlad interview, “Most rappers get killed in their own city.” This was sadly a reality MO3 was confronted with, fatally shot at the age of 28.

MO3’s murder makes “Outside” that much more harrowing. The looking over his shoulder, the anxiety, it wasn’t without reason. The sadness is that it will never truly end and they’re both aware of how devastating that cycle is. A casket for a casket, an unbalanced scale of justice. It’s deeply rooted, in the hook sighing, “Until it hurts, it ain’t no mercy, that’s just how we raised.”

The potency in MO3 and Bobby Billions’ verses lies in its sense of sins and imperfections. For every desire to change things for the better, the reality of his neighborhood remains active. Faith comes with asterisks; it won’t save you from bullets. It’s why after crying out to Jesus, he’s clutching his gun in the next breath. Every dance with the devil is counteracted with a fear of God, a desperate call for forgiveness.

“Outside (Better Days)” is a powerful eulogy for a titanic, church-raised artist who pivoted between biblically scaled epics and mournful lamentations of Dallas street tales. It’s a scripture on the drastic measures one will take to enact vengeance or self preservation. It sadly became something of a prophecy for MO3. Hip-Hop continues to lose its future generations to violence. MO3 was one of its most soulful. – Caleb Catlin

26. 03 Greedo – “Calendar”

It was another year where 03 Greedo was denied his freedom, with the versatile Watts’ artist still serving a 20-year sentence for a non-violent drug charge. Recorded three years ago, this pensive and sad track serves as the emotional core of Greedo’s diary-like 2021 EP, 03 Inna Key; “Calendar” succeeds in illuminating who Greedo is away from all the larger than life bravado, offering an unflinching insight into what it’s like to watch the world pass you by while languishing in a six-by-eight cell.

Built around a chest-emptying melody and lyrics about the dread that comes from looking at the calendar, Greedo is heartbroken and troubled at the prospect of looming prison time. Producer theycallmeparker’s bassline transports you to the feeling of a late-night car ride with a friend desperate to get some things off their chest. The result is the kind of confessional songwriting that cuts right through the bullshit, featuring someone caught up in the prison industrial complex listing the anxieties that punctuate their day-to-day. He beautifully communicates the tragedy of experiencing life milestones (such as the deaths of friends and family, buying his mom a Mercedes Benz, or purchasing a new house) from behind bars. It’s trap blues.

“How many years will I be counting up in these cages?” Greedo ponders, his vocals straining a little under the pressure.Even when giving you woozy tracks to lay back and smoke to, which “Calendar” definitely is, the LA artist doesn’t forget his responsibility to make you step into the shoes of someone in jeopardy. On this song, creating empathy for those passed through the legal system seems especially important. – Thomas Hobbs

25. Nardo Wick ft. G Herbo, 21 Savage, Lil Durk – “Who Want Smoke”

The hook on “Who Want Smoke??” isn’t vocal or even musical; it’s a series of five stomps on the beat, intruding like a comic book sound effect. Jacksonville’s Nardo Wick brags about his guns, insisting he won’t be caught unarmed even while pumping gas. He pauses only for the stomps, like he might be wary of authorities at his door, until he smirks that it’s the sound of his steps. You can hear the rapper’s Florida roots in the way he raps his threats through clenched teeth, but 19-year-old Nardo listened to G Herbo and Lil Durk as a young teen, and their taunting delivery clearly influenced his flow.

The original “Who Want Smoke??” came out in January, but those stomps were lip-synced on TikTok all summer, and an all-star remix with a Cole Bennett video pushed the song to Billboard Top 20 in October. In his verse, Durk dismisses /r/chiraqology doofuses who spam him about pills and drills like they know the difference between fact and fiction while referencing another of his 2021 hits in the process: “Got it back in blood, y’all just don’t know, that’s how it’s sposed to be.” 21 Savage catches a rival “leaving bingo with his bitch” and claps in double time over the stomps, onomatopoeia as double entendre for backshots or sneak attacks. Herbo cashes $100K checks to make up for the fact his aunt’s house still smells like crack. He adds his own accompaniment to the stomps too: shaking his chains, stacked heavy enough to sound like a tambourine.

Herbo’s flex is a perfect conclusion to a track with three rappers, who emerged from the streets into major label rap success, co-signing a new artist in their lineage. After the premature deaths of Fredo Santana, King Von, FBG Duck, and so many others, it’s nice to see the influence of Chicago drill stars on equal footing with Atlanta, even by a young rapper (and his team at RCA) coming up across the country. – Jack Riedy

24. Aesop Rock & Blockhead – “Jazz Hands”

The best way to think about “Jazz Hands” is as a duet between longtime friends and collaborators, each plying their craft in new ways after decades of underground relevance. Lyricist Aesop Rock has simplified his wordplay over time. He still relays a dizzying stream of references and surprising but resonant statements, but they are not packed in as densely as his canonical works from the past. Producer Blockhead experiments here with so-called “drumless” production techniques, touching on a common mode of expression for modern loop-based beatmakers but dropping in hints of percussion toward the end of the verses. That tension is rewarded when the beat shows itself fully for the first time after Aesop’s final verse, rocking unaccompanied for over a minute, a well-balanced track that proves this collaboration is a meeting of equals.

This is the lead single from Garbology, the first full length collaborative album between Rock and Block. It’s very much a quarantine album. Separated by the continental US but connected by their longtime rapport, the old friends found their own ways to stay busy. Blockhead spent lockdown working on his craft, churning out idea after idea on live streamed beat making sessions. One imagines that Aesop Rock spent the time skateboarding (note the reference here to “scuffed shoes and another scar for the archives”) and tapping into the deep well of phrases that he spits in his unique and captivating way. There has always been an air of mischief and a sly humor in Aesop’s rhymes that was weighed down underneath the relentless driving of his nonstop syllables. On “Jazz Hands” he appears to have lightened up a bit, bringing the listener that same left-field view of the world and deep desire to be left alone but with a welcomed lighter touch. – Nate Leblanc

23. The Alchemist feat. Earl Sweatshirt & Navy Blue – “Nobles”

When you’ve come a long way from where you started, when you’ve undergone the tribulations of modern fame at too young an age, when you’ve taken on so much yet ended up a stronger and better person than before—well, sometimes you have to take a moment, look at all you’ve accomplished, and celebrate. “Nobles” is just that kind of celebration, a statement of triumph from two artists only in their 20s, yet fully formed and rightly proud of where they’re at. Earl Sweatshirt and Navy Blue, friends from childhood, have both been through a ton: Earl spent time at a faraway boarding school, and endured deaths in the family as well as estrangement from loved ones; Navy overcame the pressures of pro skateboarding, made a difficult career switch, and experienced depression and rehab. But they’ve made it, with Earl now an influential heavyweight for a new generation of introspective rappers like MIKE and Adé Hakim, and Navy one of the most promising up-and-coming artists from this scene.

Over a resplendent orchestral loop from legendary producer the Alchemist, Earl and Navy trade bars about their journey and shout out the cultural footprints they’ve left along the way, such as Earl’s label Tan Cressida and former fashion brand Deathworld. But more importantly, they want listeners to know they’re happy to be here, together, as lifelong friends and collaborators: The “Nobles” music video includes a clip from a skateboarding video they made with a crew in 2009, along with multiple modern-day scenes of the two laughing and messing around with each other. “Told you we the best ’til we good and gone,” Earl raps at one point, while Navy responds, “Love shared, it was both ours.” – Nitish Pahwa

22. Baby Keem feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Family Ties”

“family ties” was a snack for Kendrick-hungry fiends. A temporary satiation, while waiting for the next main meal. At least it’s a variety pack.

The song takes place in segmented parts. First, a three note horn pattern rings out like a hype alarm, signaling for any and all programmed trap drums in the nearby vicinity to drop as soon as possible. When they do, Baby Keem unleashes a stream of palpable urgency. He sounds desperate to prove he deserves this co-billing, and he does. Opening for Kendrick elevates him the way it did Kanye, the way it’s done Wayne. When you know who’s up next what else is there to do but rap your best for damn near two minute straight? The horns eventually drop out, two new samples surface above a shifting beat, and Keem carries on unfazed.

When he’s done, the production makes a more sudden turn to a new beat altogether. A darker inversion of the triumphant opening. Distorted bass, in spare spurts, stutters with the kicks and claps. A light mid-range melody glimmers in the distance. And then it is Kendrick’s turn.

Whereas Baby Keem raps in one relentless, breathy, near-shouty tone, Kendrick bounces from voice to voice, bar to bar. Keem’s vocal style is just one tool in Kendrick’s expanding toolbox. The voices can be off-putting and the edit points are choppy and jarring at times, but the attempt is a welcome reminder of Kendrick’s writing precision. Given the references to his new venture pgLang and that company’s co-founder Dave Free, who directed the video in which Kendrick waves a giant pgLang flag, Kendrick’s verse does more than satisfy impatient fans’ hunger. It hints at his post-TDE ambitions. Gives an idea of his musical future, in the form of the ideal song for our musical present.

Keem’s flow is less controlled than that of his cousin’s, but his unhinged energy is exactly what the rapid-fire back-and-forth conclusion of “family ties” needs. The atypical sequencing makes the song more challenging than whatever comes before and after it on the playlist or radio. Combined, the song’s individual parts form a whole piece that is greater than either rapper’s individual verse. “family ties” ultimately wasn’t just a 2021 loosie to tide Kendrick fans over. It was something else altogether. – Will Hagle

21. Makonnen x Lil B – “More Bitches Than the Mayor”

At the intersection of absurdity and profundity lies two of the greatest rappers the 2010’s have produced – Lil B and Makonnen. So naturally, their track “More Bitches Than The Mayor” is everything you would imagine: hysterical, whimsical, catchy in an idiosyncratic way, and above all else, confidence-inducing. It’s a cold sprite on a hot day, jolting your senses and powering you up to believe that you could, yes, get more bitches than the mayor.

Right from the first note, you’re in fairyland. Butterflies dance on the synth pads and leave crystallic ripples as Makonnen introduces the concept. Like Paul Thompson wrote in his profile, it “sounds like something from a dream he half-remembers.” Welcome to Makonnen’s world, where nothing feels real, so everything feels attainable. Not only can he get more bitches than the mayor, but he can bring one of his formative muses (it’s no coincidence he used to blog about Lil B’s music) into his candy-paint universe to rap about getting more bitches than A-Rod and dip heavily into the autotuned realm to clarify his player. If the Lil B sound and form opened up the looser, sillier sides of rap to flourish, Makonnen’s brand of off-kilter bedroom pop-rap spread the lane to a waterfall of syrup-drenched post-irony music that’s only getting more absurd.- Harley Geffner

20. Big Jade x BeatkIng – “Respectfully”

Big Jade is the kind of rapper the post-Stallion era warrants. The 27-year old Texan raps like quicksilver, a burgeoning reputation sealed off the back of a series of dazzling triple-time freestyles over Outkast and Busta Rhymes instrumentals. Her partnership with Houston club god Beatking is a potent one. When he’s not churning out local collaborations by the pound and engaging in highly effective TikTok fuckery, he’s produced the bulk of her first two albums. Breakthrough single “Respectfully” off of her aptly titled second album “Pressure” is the sound of them willing a scene into existence. Over sub-Ohm ratchets and stabs, Big Jade meets the bombast of the occasion with poise. She drops a flurry of weightless couplets and then vanishes, offering us a tantalising glimpse of her talents and leaves it to handmaiden/ hype lady Queendom Come to explain what you’re being privy to.

The hook (“I got finessed once, I used to be a nice bitch.”) feels like a cri de couer for an artist finding her space on her own terms and one that could neatly apply to a generation of Texas rappers, whatever their pronouns. “Respectfully” is an all-city affair that puts Big Jade firmly at the center of Houston’s moment (even if she’s originally from Beaumont) and suggests that when it comes to rap in Texas and beyond, regime change is in the air. – Joel Biswas

Gabe Nandez – “Ox” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Gabe ‘Nandez has one of the most colorful and interesting biographies in rap. He’s well-traveled and speaks multiple languages – a true cosmopolitan. He is an obviously gifted rapper, and therefore a communicator, but he feels unknowable. “Ox,” the lead single from the POW Recordings EP of the same name, is not a way into his mind, it’s a showcase for his razor sharp rhyming. The recording is physically intimate, closely mic’d. You can hear ‘Nandez rhyme around his fronts, uncorking twisty flows and tricky rhymes that find the MC with money and mythology on his mind. The accompanying video is reminiscent of an earlier time in hip-hop, when a haunting beat, a snowy stoop and a powerful display of rhyme ability was a ticket to stardom.

“Ox” is a cold record, the rhymes are pristine like the crunch of fresh snow under a boot, and the gorgeous vocal sample that defines the beat is the fur around the hood of a winter coat, bringing style and comfort to something that otherwise feels more utilitarian. If Gabe ‘Nandez set out to show the world that he’s a top-tier rhymer with his pair of projects this year, then he has succeeded; “Ox” gets things started in a beautiful way. – Nate Leblanc

19. Isaiah Rashad – “Headshots (4r Da Locals)”

The second single off of his sophomore studio album, The House is Burning, Isaiah Rashad’s “Headshots 4r Da Locals” announces him a “changed, changed, changed, changed, changed” man. After a five-year hiatus, Rashad returns as a familiar enigma who’s been to the bottom and back. “Headshots,” the Tennessee-bred MC shares, is a double entendre about “losing somebody or dying yourself” to a gunshot or alcohol, both with which he understands too well. The song covers everything from losing his brother, a former Navy seal (“the shots ain’t bringing my soldier back”), to losing himself to drugs and alcohol, which landed him in rehab and was largely responsible for the long gap between 2016’s critically acclaimed The Sun’s Tirade and 2021’s The House is Burning.

After five years of self-destruction-turned-self-realization, you’d think writing “Headshots” would be heavy. But, Rashad admits, “a 45 minute drive” and “two blunts” later, penning the rhyme was, well, “easy shit.” However dark its content can get, “Headshots” successfully distracts with a slow, dreamy bounce and a healthy degree of braggadocio, leaving enough room to have fun without missing the message. As in his personal life, the Henry Was and Hollywood Cole-produced “Headshots 4r Da Locals,” understands how to set the right tempo: speeding it up when he wants your attention, slowing it down when he needs your groove, and changing lanes while trying not to lose control. – Paley Martin

18. Trapland Pat – “Big Business”

Trapland Pat has the face to match the Sunshine State’s unhinged energy. His enormous eyes, which nearly jump out of their sockets, sit above an uncanny, too-wide grin full of gleaming gold teeth. It’s a startling look, at once cartoonish and menacing—attributes he plays up on the cover of his breakout project, Thru Da Door. Over the tape’s 13 songs, Pat synthesizes the various strains of Broward County’s Haitian diaspora rap into one seamless style, tempering Kodak Black’s wild-eyed ululations with Lajan Slim’s steely stoicism. In the video for “Big Business,” Door’s effervescent first single, Pat never stays still, bouncing around the frame while his bulging eyes dart between the camera and the hidden corners of Deerfield Beach’s alleyways. His exuberance feels shot through with a gripping paranoia.

Pat’s lyrics crackle with unease, exuding both braggadocio and frustration in equal measure. In the same breath that he boasts about “turn[ing] a princess to a mistress,” Pat complains about his inability to source strong enough weed. He happily brags about moving weight while soberly assessing the risks he needs to take to survive. Stuck somewhere in the gray area between kingpin and pauper, Pat tries to keep his balance on unsteady ground.

Supplementing Pat’s paranoia, Pepperjack Zoe’s minimal beat takes cues from The Hot Boys’ “Tuesday & Thursday,” a similarly white-knuckled trap tale. Zoe shears off Mannie Fresh’s synth bass and harpsichord flourishes, leaving only the piano stabs and flickering hi hats. In response, Pat adopts a Juvenile-inspired delivery, letting the ends of his bars curl up as if concluding each sentence with a comma. At times, he’ll anxiously rush ahead of the beat, only to calm himself down and smoothly settle back into the pocket. Beyond his hometown influences, Pat’s clearly a student of the Cash Money takeover of the 99 and the 2000; by the end of the song’s sole verse, he effortlessly slips into the catchy melodicism that played at the edges of that era’s hits.

If “Big Business” is any indication, Trapland Pat may well become South Florida’s next rap auteur. In less than two minutes, he deftly connects Broward County’s disparate styles, vibrating at his own zany frequency. – Dash Lewis

17. Akeem Ali – “Keemy Casanova”

“Keemy Casanova” feels beamed in from a wholly sexier place and time, like a commercial for a 900 number glimpsed through half-shut eyelids. Jackson, MS rapper Akeem Ali introduces his alter ego, a slick-talking pimp generations of pastiche removed from the lurid paperbacks of Iceberg Slim. He’s a mental mathematician with women in South Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida, but right now he’s in your kitchen cooking grits and putting dick in your wife. He’s got his shirt spread wide open like it doesn’t even have buttons, and a switchblade tucked away because he’d rather stab somebody than risk breaking an immaculately manicured fingernail. The smooth organ loops from producer OthelloBeats leave room for Ali to rap one lengthy verse. Who needs a hook when the bars comfortably accumulate like a silk robe pooling on the bedroom floor?

“Keemy Casanova” became the overture for Mack in the Day Starring Keemy Casanova, an EP that seeks the same nostalgia for the unremembered ‘70s as Silk Sonic but without the Grammys bait sheen. The track took off this year thanks to a December 2020 performance on The 85 South Show that proved Ali has the skills to perform his syllable-dense verses live without sacrificing any charisma. In his years of rapping before developing his pimp persona, Ali looked to Jamie Foxx to improve his showmanship. “Keemy Casanova” matches the goofy perfection of Foxx’s best music, like “Blame It” or his Ray Charles re-creation on “Gold Digger.” They’re funny, but not a joke, and they’re committed to the character, enough to get a little two-step on if the ladies are watching. How many other songs on this list can you dance to? – Jack Riedy

16. EST Gee ft. Lil Baby x 42 Dugg x Rylo Rodriguez – “5500 Degrees”

Every EST Gee song sounds like it’s delivered down the scope of a sniper rifle, hadron-collider-molecule bullets delivered with perfect accuracy over and over at the speed of light at one target. There is single-mindedness and then there is whatever EST Gee is doing, who appears to be engaged in some mythical anime training regime to punch the same punching bag 1 trillion times to achieve sage status. The combined effect is, candidly, staggering: on songs like “Capitol 1”, the levels of potential energy that he builds seem untenable, almost too high wattage to listen through AirPods.

“5500” is notable, however, for expanding the cast: bringing four of the best at what they do to chip into that menacing and meditative plane of existence together (while sampling Juvenile). EST Gee brings in lieutenants but still maintains absolute military command over the tenor here. Like every good EST Gee song, every second that isn’t another snarl is wasted. While outdated, the approach here is deeply familiar: this is a radio freestyle YouTube video that gets sent around by Facebook Messenger in 2012 with Funkmaster Flex grimacing in the back, or a BET or XXL freestyle in 480p when those things held at least fleeting cultural cachet. The rap as a flex is still more than intact as an art form, but something about the beat’s motif being buried behind drums or the familiar toolbox of bad similes about current events and NFL references feels like Gee, Lil Baby, 42 Dugg, and Rylo are tapping into sacred ancient channels.

And “5500” preserves perhaps the most critical and unique characteristics of that cypher format, which is remembering that raps are just words and words are conversations. As much as this is is a song this is also an oration, and EST Gee doesn’t wait his turn – this is no “first you, then me” affair. He’s intercutting, the introductory act and the intermission and the emcee all in one. Momentum is a curious thing, and EST Gee owns it. – Sun-Ui Yum

15. Playboi Carti – “Sky”

Let’s not complicate things. “Sky” is a song by Playboi Carti about being really high and how that can be fun and scary and numb all at once. The cult Atlanta rapper interpolates Bone Thugs’ “1st of Tha Month,” but unlike their immortal depiction of paydays during poverty, Carti doesn’t sound like he’s wanted for anything in his life. On the hook, Carti tells his boy to roll ten blunts, and his own ad-libs sound astonished. Surrounded by drugs, cash, and guns, it’s funny that his only concern is sexual paranoia. He demands to know if his girl slept with anyone else in the room, repeating himself in an uneven tumble, though he says they’re best friends, not a couple and he doesn’t even like to hug. But even that subsides with the promise of more syrup and blunts.

Then again, analyzing Carti lyrics might be missing the point (though shout-out to whatever Discord server first transcribed every ad-lib with the accuracy of a cloistered monk). On Whole Lotta Red, the sound is the point. As Carti told his inspiration and collaborator Kid Cudi, “You got rappers who like being around rappers, and then you got rappers like me who like being around producers.” On “Sky,” he mutters and yelps over an endlessly repeating riff that sounds like it was recorded with a Guitar Hero controller, courtesy of a South Korean merch designer / producer who goes by Art Dealer. Carti finds new pockets every few bars, his voice scraping the roof of his natural range but smoothed over with a dab of Auto-Tune. It’s a quick hit of pure id. – Jack Riedy

14. Freddie Gibbs – “Big Boss Rabbit”

Did it take anyone else three singles to realize that, wait, is Freddie Gibbs putting cute lil’ bunnies on everything this cycle?

To shirk traditional rap signifiers in favor of, again, adorable bunny rabbits, is the kind of move only the most transcendently cool can pull off: Cam’ron wearing all pink, 2Pac dressing like a steampunk leather daddy on the cover of All Eyez on Me, the Vice Lords co-opting the Playboy Bunny—ah, there it is.

Hacky writers have always made hay out of whether rappers have any connection to the streets after they get rich, to which the only possible response is, shut up, dork: Freddie Gibbs raps about the streets the same way Martin Scorsese makes gangster films or Kazuo Ishiguro writes about being a sad propagandist/butler/clone/robot. It’s simply their milieu. Plus, trauma is a deep well.

Alfredo didn’t earn Freddie his first Grammy nomination because he started rapping about something other than dope. It was the culmination of a decade’s worth of hustling, but getting signed to Warner’s might have had something to do with it too—see: hustling for a decade.

It is remarkable for an artist of his stature that “Big Boss Rabbit” is just Freddie’s second single on a major label. It’s a pugilistic waterfall of arcane wordplay and matter-of-fact death threats. It has something that could technically be called a chorus but not really. And it’s all over a flip of Nas’s “You’re da Man” from 2001, gentle shade thrown in Nasty’s direction for beating Gibbs out at the Grammys. In other words, it’s exactly what Freddie Gibbs has been doing for more than a decade but better.

His backstory is so dense it’s hard to summarize concisely: from robbing trains in Gary, Indiana; to slinging dope out of a tenement in Van Nuys; signed then figuratively left for dead by Interscope; independent success culminating in a rap nerd’s wet dream pairing with Madlib; literally left for dead in two different European prisons; to [waves hands up and down and in every direction] all this. Of course even the Grammys had to put some respect on his name.

Oh, his nickname for his son is Rabbit.

Did Freddie Gibbs name his son after the Vice Lords? – Jordan Ryan Pedersen

13. Boldy James & The Alchemist – “First 48 Freestyle”

If Boldy James’ 2020 run taught us anything, it’s that the most stoic of street bards can spit game over any beat. From the avant garde nu jazz of Manger on McNichols to the distorted opulence of The Versace Tape, the Concreature’s annus mirabilis unveiled a willingness to experiment in the midst of a career renaissance well into his late thirties. However, it’s his work with rap’s evergreen auteur Alchemist that launched Detroit’s slickest wordsmith to another stratosphere. The immersive The Price of Tea in China was lauded, yet simply foreshadowed their magnum opus in Bo Jackson, a more expansive effort that expertly blends Boldy’s vivid recollections of the trap with Uncle Al’s increasingly psychedelic production.

“First 48 Freestyle”, Bo Jackson’s lead single, is arguably the zenith of their musical tandem. Boldy typically doesn’t waver from his thousand-yard stare, recounting fallen foes and criminal anecdotes — including the AKs by the fireplace and the two nines he brought on a double date — with his distinctively weary drawl. He neither glamorizes nor resents his time in the underworld, but merely gives us a no-frills perspective on the shit he’s seen. Alchemist’s cinematic backdrop channels Michael Mann’s crime noirs and Roc-A-Fella’s early 2000s victory laps, laying down a lush carpet for Boldy’s mid-tempo flow to glide over vintage strums and tumbling percussion.

In the video, we see Boldy ruminating on a rooftop loft underneath the night sky. Given his streak of classics with Alchemist, comparisons with the late Prodigy are easy and inevitable. But while the lyrical half of Mobb Deep thrived in the trife life, Boldy is more reflective with his exposition. He’s candid about the streets, yet is finally able to survey his surroundings from a cosy vantage point rather than having to dodge and weave his way around the block. “As long as I woke up today, I do not have one complaint,” he raps at the beginning, an apt way to kick-start a song that further cements him as one of modern hip hop’s most compelling voices. – Oumar Saleh

12. Rio Da Yung OG – “Last Day Out”

Careening between the Itchy and Scratchy style cartoonishly surreal shit talking of contemporary Michigan rap and contemplating the grim reality of spending the next five years stuck in the hell hole of an American prison cell at the height of his notoriety and creativity is where we find Rio Da Young Og on “Last Day Out.”

In the ecosystem of Flint rap, where there’s a constant arms race to come up with the most darkly comedic one liners and audaciously funny punchlines about get rich quick schemes and silly teenage sex fantasies, Rio Da Young Og is one of the most outlandish, and therefore, one the best, and arguably, one of the most influential figures in the scene. With his stern, gruff voice grounding the outrageousness of his detailed writing and his character, Rio was poised to take the style to greater and greater heights along with YN Jay, Icewater Vezzo and others in the scene. But before that could really happen, Rio was arrested in January of 2019 for gun possession and drug charges. Later Rio and five others were faced federal charges for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and heroin. The following year Rio took a plea deal and received a five year sentence which started this summer.

“Last Day Out” is a goodbye to Rio’s fans, with plenty of Flint rap theatrics, but also an effecting and poignant portrait of a man facing the abyss, an apology to his family, a reminder to himself of all that he’s accomplished, a damnation of the American justice system, a promise and testament of resolve to himself, the Michicgan rap scene and his fans all under a somehow solemn and bouncy piano heavy distorted Michigan beat, delivered by the best accidental shit talker in the world. – Sam Ribakoff

11. EBK Young Joc feat. Daboii – “Wack Something”

There’s no funnier line this year than DaBoii squeaking to a disgruntled woman that he’ll see her again on the thirty third of the month. The best rap music is made without thinking – it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s as simple as getting these jokes and bars off. It’s something to dance to, laugh about, and scrunch your face at when confronted with the stingers. “Wack Something” has it all – the Enrgy beat drives the song with a bouncy forward pump and Mafioso-sounding theme reminiscent of the legendary “Wack Jumper,” as the two NorCal rappers each take a rip at it.

Stockton’s EBK Young Joc, who just turned himself into authorities for a short bid, has some of the best pacing in his flows of any rapper working right now. He lilts us into his verse rapping steadily about his serving fiends testers before accelerating into an onslaught of bars on his quick draw, paranoia, and street savvy. There’s a moment he rocks his arms as if he’s holding a baby, but it’s really rock and rolling with his blicky. It’s a hell of a verse, and the depth of Joc’s voice opens the song for DaBoii to run the higher register, jumping in to yell that it’s his “turny-urn” and excitedly yelping about all the things wrong with the woman who he’ll see again on the thirty third, his $1,000 dice rolls, and the weight of his jewelry. It’s good, pure fun – and one of the most jigg-able songs of the year. – Harley Geffner

10. Wallie The Sensei – “03 Flow”

Only Babe Ruth in 1932 called his shot better than when Compton’s Wallie The Sensei opened “03 Flow” with a verse calling the song the city anthem. Before the man who tatted “Living Legend” on his face went away to face a 20-year bid in Texas for some bullshit charges, 03 Greedo occupied the heart and soul of Los Angeles – the emotional gangster rapper who had bops for the parties and the quiet moments of reflection. But with an homage to the wistful style Greedo popularized in LA, Wallie is filling the vacuum left in his wake.

“03 Flow” is one of those songs that lingers in your chest. It has the somber piano and religious hymnal elements that are no doubt products of his choir church background, and make it an easy sing-along. But the real stickiness comes from the genuine sorrow in Wallie’s voice as he faces the reality of his situation. He’s got a felony, and you know how hard it is to claw yourself out of that hole? The deep drops in the beat go hand in hand with the sinking feeling Wallie sings about, likening his circumstances to quicksand as he questions why Jesus would deal him such a hand.

As beautiful and rewarding as living can be, there’s an existential misery that sits with us all, and “03 Flow” taps into that like no other song this year. And with constant reminders of that misery around us in LA (homelessness, homicides, outdated city infrastructure that disproportionately hinders Black people, etc.), it’s no wonder this song struck a chord with the city and soundtracked 40% of IG Stories filmed during LA night-rides. But more than that, the feeling Wallie emotes – the one of being stuck – is universal in its own right. You may not be facing a felony charge, but maybe you’re stuck at a job, in a dead-end relationship, in the cycle of wage-slavery and rent-gouging… well this one’s for you. Even the Taliban was banging it. – Harley Geffner

Vince Ash, Cypress Moreno, Skiinny, Nuskii, Tramaine – “Coach Carter” (Unranked: POW Recordings alum)

For Vince Ash, 2021 proved to be one of the most significant years of his career. Initially discovered by POW Recordings head huncho, Jeff Weiss, Ash was soon signed to the label, where he dropped Do Or Die, an eight-track gunmetal missive from 2018 that still bangs just as hard today.

Following his official debut album, VITO, released on POW Recordings in 2020, Ash continued to turn heads with his honed-in style of storytelling and raspy growl. Further interest from the industry built. This year, Ash broke new ground as the first artist to ink a deal on Paul Rosenberg’s Goliath Records/Interscope imprint.

Since signing his label deals, Ash has remained dedicated to putting on for his hometown of Hammond, Indiana, while also bringing along the same guys who he started his music career with. Few tracks illustrate this as well as “Coach Carter,” a crew banger for long nights filled with vice. From the start of the beat there’s an uneasiness in the slow, repetitive piano, like a sledgehammer cracking tile. This is running missions on the 11th hour music.

In the music video, there’s a bit of Paid In Full’s, “everybody eats” mixed with the opening scenes of Reservoir Dogs. Underneath the smoked out glow of a backroom, we’re introduced to each character of this crime thriller. Straight out of Hammond’s eastside, the Deuce Mobb is comprised of Skiinny, Vince Ash, Nuskii and Tremaine.

With L.A.’s Cypress Moreno on the beat, the 808’s skitter and slam into each other with an almost drill style slide. From the Midwest to the heart of the West, this is the kind of song that oaths are made to, eights are faced too. Masked up and prepared for any threats ahead, Ash is poised to continue to tell his story at scale without compromising his integrity.

Having both performed on the main stage at the Don’t Come To L.A. 2018 showcase at SXSW, it’s only fitting to hear Deuce Mobb going bar for bar over the crisp production of Cypress Moreno. Here’s to hoping we eventually get a full project from the guys. – Evan Gabriel

9. Monaleo – “Beating Down Your Block”

Of the many rappers and singers involved in the trend of remaking old songs these past few years, what made Monaleo’s version of Yungstar’s “Knocking Pictures Off Da Wall” work so well? Was it the all-time Houston beat and the way this updated version blasted off? Was it her hard delivery and sense of charm whilst spitting on graves? Was it the 20 year retro cycle and how culture seems to automatically hunger for what popped off two decades ago?

It was all of the above but also something unnameable. Surely there’s SOME reason why everyone I played this song for this year felt it right away, and more than a few asked, who is that?? But I will not be the writer who tells you definitely what that THING was. Perhaps though, it was Monaleo’s sense of ownership over the source material, which is the same age as she is, how she seemed to snatch it as her Houston birthright. There’s a glorious ease there. It could also be something about the song structurally, with its verses and choruses offering a familiar fullness you don’t get much anymore in this time of young rappers doing sub two-minute snippet-as-songs. Maybe it was the climate of prime time rap in 2021, when we got these overlong, underwhelming albums by two waning titans of the game, and how much it was obvious that we needed new people on the mic. There was a feeling that Monaleo was coming out of nowhere, forcibly grabbing your attention and then rewarding you with energy and bars, not trying to appease some other system that we listeners don’t really care about, be it numerical or critical. “Beating Down Yo’ Block” doesn’t feel concerned with streaming metrics or grandiose legendariness. It gets right down to business and finishes the job.

But who tf knows. Not to offer a total critical cop out, but the shit slams and really isn’t that enough said? The song is a total mood changer, a classic built off a classic that didn’t mess anything up the third time around (Boosie remade it too) –– a shot of energy that (probably, not that I’d know) would sound incredible in the club about two drinks in. Punch-the-air type music. A new-old anthem. Whatever it was, we needed it. – Andrew Matson

8. P4K x Top5ivee x 5Much x EkillaOffThaBlocck x Lil Chief – “Baby Stone Gorillas”

When the Baby Stone Gorillas emerged in the first half of the year, they’d be the first to admit that they had no real plan; none of them ever really thought about becoming rappers anyway. 5Much would play around with GarageBand to pass the time while in juvie camp, but that’s about it. The group hails from Baldwin Village, better known as the Jungles, a nickname given in reference to the palm trees and lush foliage that frame its landscape. When they first started rapping at the end of 2020, they mainly recorded over Detroit-type beats they found online, but Top5ivee suggested they try something truer to their South Central roots after a few months. It’d become their first song as a group: “STL Caps and Jay Hats.” The beat in question? You might recognize its lilting piano from fellow L.A. rapper Tr3yway6k’s “Land of the Crims,” but Top5ivee says that he had no clue about that song and just found the beat on YouTube. Regardless, the response they got told them not to look back.

If “STL Caps and Jay Hats” was just a warning shot, “Baby Stone Gorillas,” released just 2 months later, was the punch in the chest that let it be known they wanted to become the most notorious group in the city. There is no immediately identifiable solo star or wildly distinctive individual styles boosting the Baby Stone Gorillas’ profile—it’s their combined mastery and subtle evolutions of the jittery tics and narcotized flows of post-Drakeo L.A. rap that makes their music so potent (combined with an all-time Ron-Ron beat). When the song starts, you’re greeted by P4K’s short-temper, where his finger-twisting rhymes rub up against threats to knock off someone just for talking to him. Then there’s 5Much, who can’t help but interrupt himself mid-verse to make sure you know he’s boming, not coming, and change his flow up. Right before the end, EkillaOffThaBlocck pops in to inject that bit of electrifying adrenaline that the song was missing. But the song’s best verse belongs to Top5ivee. He’ll slip in crushing details like his mom having to drive up to court that complicates lines about having to stash guns on short notice. Every single second of “Baby Stone Gorillas” is filled with personality and mystique—it’s the first impression every rap group hopes to make. – Brandon Callender

7. Drakeo the Ruler and Ralfy the Plug – “Flu Flamm A Opp”

This was the first full year Drakeo The Ruler didn’t spend almost entirely in a county jail cell since 2017. Being a Drakeo fan these past few years was like watching a Greek tragedy unfold in real time. His imprisonment was a flagrant abuse of power followed by an unending drone of court proceedings attempting to categorize the Stinc Team as a criminal gang. Before he was jailed, Drakeo released Cold Devil, an LA rap masterpiece that would position him as the most promising artist in the region, whether he’d be here for it or not.

Drakeo accepted a plea deal and was released from jail after more than three years in November 2020. At the end of his video for “20 Pieces,” featured on last year’s We Know The Truth, the first of three albums in what I’m calling the Truth Trilogy, Drakeo shows off a gigantic black trash bag filled with lyrics he’s written on scraps of white paper while locked up. “This bag is full of raps,” Drakeo says into the camera. “This is the bag that’s going to make me a millionaire.” Drakeo’s prediction likely proved to be an understatement. In his first year home, he’s dropped a staggering five projects of new material, not including a re-release of his 2020 album, Thank You For Using GTL, which was recorded entirely over a jail phone. He received the inevitable Drake feature in February and stole the show this summer on singles by Saweetie and Blxst. The best of the nearly 100 songs Drakeo released in 2021 is “Flu Flam A Opp,” an uncharacteristically joyous single that triggers a new era for the perpetually nervous rapper — one in which he can actually envision being around to enjoy his spoils.

“Flu Flam A Opp” is the best song on Drakeo’s strongest album this year, Ain’t That The Truth, the third installment in the Truth Trilogy, released in July. The production, handled by Al B Smoov & District Yori, conjures up images of Drakeo exiting a Rolls Royce Dawn before pressing a button and ejecting a $700 umbrella from a secret compartment in the door. In the video, Drakeo and his blood brother Ralfy The Plug seem happier than usual, like they can finally focus on creating new unheard-of ways to flex instead of constantly looking over their shoulders. Drakeo remains effortlessly strange in his references, rhyming buzz with Elmer Fudd and imposing a loose wrestling theme throughout the track. Ralfy The Plug appears in the third verse like a magician, threatening to turn opps into cookie packs and kick boxers into jerkers. It’s a celebration of everything to love about the Stinc Team. – Donny Morrison

[Ed note: blurb was written before the death of Drakeo]

6. Armand Hammer ft. Earl Sweatshirt – “Falling Out the Sky”

Consider “Falling Out The Sky” a giant middle finger to any lazy music critics (ahem) who’ve used the words “post-apocalyptic” to describe Armand Hammer’s aesthetic without actually listening to their actual records. Building on the pastoral production from last year’s Shrines, “Falling Out The Sky” features an underground rap dream team. Uniting Alchemist, billy woods, Elucid and Earl (the man who linked everyone together), they unleash a trio of narratives over a blissful, almost oceanic beat. Thebe Kgositsile kicks things off with what sounds like a half intoxicated yet incredibly heartfelt verse about his father’s passing, coming full circle from his earliest days as an Odd Future enfant terrible, to mourn not only the man, but also their difficult relationship. It’s the least straightforward of the three verses but also the most touching – a fitting send off for a poet, told in stargazing, abstract language rather than steady prose.

woods then pushes things in a more straightforward direction, reminiscing on a summer spent trimming weed out west, the carefree Californian vibe colliding with the realities of a shit gig and the ever watchful state troopers lying in wait, whenever woods might return to New York product in hand. As for Elucid, he waxes nostalgic about a summer spent at an upstate summer camp, complete with hazing, ghost stories, paranormal experience and the kind of childish shit that Black kids don’t get to experience, much less speak on as grown men. It all adds up to a song that’s equal part pained and celebratory, relaxed and mournful, nostalgic yet honest that the past wasn’t always that great. – Son Raw

Archibald Slim – “When the Light Hits” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Grainy VHS tapes are a relic of a different time and life, but for Archibald Slim, they personify the bleak, poetic muses of his raps. After his long-awaited return to the mic last year, the Atlanta product released Fell Asleep Praying, his first full length project in nearly five years that boasts religious overtones and trap-infused undertones as it cruises down a dimly lit street. “When The Light Hits” is a reflective and sobering sermon that positions Slim at the crossroads of content and hustle as he thanks the lord for how far he has come. He opens with a sample of a minister praising God before rapping on how his past has shaped his present. His pen is slick and his wordplay is masterful, all while being impassively blunt and real. The music video fits the hymns it accompanies—granular images of Slim posted up in front of a church, on street corners, and in a railyard on a dismally cloudy day.

Coming up with the rest of the diverse Awful Records crew in the early 2010s, Archibald Slim always seemed to approach his role as a grounding force, rapping like hell when it was time to rap and seldom reaching for the spotlight. In 2021, he continued that reserved, classical spirit and approach. While fellow Awful Records alum Zack Fox and Playboi Carti dropped comical and enigmatic albums, Slim dropped coarse, realist reflections over hi-hats and trap rhythms. “When The Light Hits” echoes these sentiments with brutish accuracy, and officially heralds Archibald Slim’s return. – Kevin Crandall

5. Tyler, the Creator ft. NBA YoungBoy – “WUSYANAME”

“Let’s go to Cannes and watch a couple indie movies that you never hearrrrd of…” For any other working rapper today, the fear of pretentiousness would probably leave that on the cutting room floor. But Tyler, The Creator managed to build an entire identity around it. It’s been a decade since the cockroaches, green ski masks, and a noticeably uncomfortable Jimmy Fallon. Tyler has since solidified himself as hip-hop’s greatest student. There isn’t another artist in music currently more determined in their autodidactic fascination of everything (including international cinema, architecture, color palettes, and in a few bars… exfoliating skin care methods.)

Call Me If You Get Lost’s “WUSYANAME” takes all of those influences, extracurricular interests, and weird idiosyncrasies to task in the form of a two-minute R&B-infused love ballad. Much like the Kanye’s and Pharrell’s before him, Tyler’s ability to pull other, seemingly distant artists into his orbit for a fleeting moment of collaborative brilliance is generationally unmatched.

Tyler is well versed in his love of aesthetic juxtaposition — just look at his signature wardrobe selections — the pastel blues paired with dark browns that are now displayed on every fast fashion mall mannequin because of this man — his music video locales, the graininess of his filmstock. He’s an expert curator. That same itch helped bring us YoungBoy Never Broke Again singing over H-Town’s 1994 “Back Seat (With No Sheets).” There is a working scientific thesis on the serotonin spike that happens when YoungBoy audibly rolls his r’s on “compared to the fashion” but the empirical evidence remains murky. Just know that it’s real.

At this point in his career, Tyler is only 30 and already receiving “Cultural Influence” awards. He’s a veteran. And look, 2021 was another shit year in semi-literal purgatory given the hellish state of things. You know the vibe, it’s been two full years of this. The point is, it’s just cool that this guy still cares, that his effort is still this infectious on songs like “WUSYANAME.” For his third straight project, Tyler successfully reminded us that trying hard and caring is cool. – Patrick Johnson

4. Pooh Shiesty feat. Lil Durk – Back in Blood

It’s not totally clear what makes a song ineffable. In the case of “Back in Blood,” there are a few possibilities: maybe it’s that circular arpeggiated piano, like the waving of a finger in warning. Maybe it’s the fact that when words come at you that fast and in a drawl as seasoned and marbled as Pooh’s, they’re just that much more compelling. Maybe it’s the smurk of it all.

There isn’t a ton to say about Pooh Shiesty yet. There’s the fact that he claims he didn’t want to sign with Memphis heavyweights like Yo Gotti or Young Dolph – RIP – which speaks to his DIY hustle. There’s the endearing anecdote about Gucci DMing him at 3 AM and then video chatting for six hours. I like to picture Shiesty the next day, bleary-eyed, texting everybody in his phone over a late lunch—I was going to say at Rendezvous because of Three Six, but a local confirmed that The Four Way or Jack Pirtle’s Chicken are better bets if you’re on the south side.

He’s mostly potential at this point. Shiesty Season is solid, occasionally thrilling. He got locked up almost immediately after it dropped, which has stalled his momentum (for now). What’s clear is that Shiesty is best when he collaborates, both rising to the occasion himself—“Blood” is Shiesty’s best hook by leaps and bounds—and pulling the best out of his peers: in the video, Durk’s “Pooh Shiesty that’s my dog/but Pooh you know I’m really shiesty” gets echoed like gang vocals on a hardcore song, and it deserves to. But he hasn’t entirely gotten out from under the shadow of Gucci—the one who did sign him, to 1017.

But whatever happens, “Back in Blood” will remain Shiesty’s “we’ll always have Paris” moment, a blood simple hook tip-toeing with malice in its heart through an eight-note no-sustain piano loop so icy your fingers go numb. Big blrrrd. – Jordan Ryan Pedersen

3. Mach-Hommy – “Kriminel”

My family’s dark history bleeds into the now. My oldest cousin, who taught me all I know about hip-hop, has been mentally ill for years. He doesn’t let me come into his room when I come over. If you pick the reasons for my family’s trauma in a hat, you’ll find a lot of words that you recognize: mental illness, dropping class status, high blood pressure, diabetes, and addiction. We aren’t struggling to eat, but it was painful for my family to not have the same financial means we used to have. The desire for financial freedom has been talked about practically my whole life. To have lineage as a Black person is to have your past burning inside the back of your mind, stewing on every move you make. There’s cold nights where all I think about are the fights that my brother and I got into back at home, whether I’m representing myself well enough, and if the demons passed on won’t get the best of me. Besides some time at a funeral, my brother and I have not spoken in a year. My newfound spirituality and faith in Allah, which to me is the God of the Black man, gives me hope that his health will get better and our patience with one another will improve.

Mach-Hommy’s “Kriminel,” the standout song from his opus Pray for Haiti is about keeping your faith despite the history of yourself. Mach is known for being mysterious but he is at his most earnest here, letting us into a story of family memories with his trademark proud but understated confidence. Even still, Mach needs faith. He needs his Thing. Perhaps Dede – his cousin – is his universal Thing that keeps him alive. His use of Haitian Croele isn’t just a tool in his music, it’s the way he calms himself down through a stretch of bad memories. It’s the way he reminds himself of his home, despite any internal strife he is going through. There’s a push and pull on this record between recollecting memories and persevering through them. Throughout this song, Mach goes through every emotion while thinking about his family: peace when he is saying hymns, the gratefulness he has for Denise keeping him strong with cereal, or the anguish from seeing a dead friend in his sleep. Mach has a push and pull with how he feels daily – exhibiting the demons he has. Haiti is a mystical country. It was present to a successful slave revolt despite now owing money to its colonizer. As part of the Jamaican diaspora, I recognize the pain and firm determination on “Kriminel.” He, and this song, are an ancient puzzle. It’s patient and rewarding when it reveals itself gravely when you put all the pieces together. In 2021, he went from the best rapper that the mainstream had not yet been up on, to 20% of the masters from Pray for Haiti going to a trust fund for the future software engineers in Haiti. It goes to show that at the end of the day, even after your caginess and internal strifes, all you have is your spirit and your ability to hum along, to carry on throughout the day. – Jayson Buford

2. Remble – “Touchable”

The thundering bell that opens “Touchable” rings out like a shot, but instead of the Undertaker rising from the dead to pummel your favorite wrestler into a tombstone of their own, it’s Remble appearing at your doorstep with his glock when you least expect it. When Remble introduces himself to “Touchable” with his signature “it’s Remble” tag, there’s no mistaking it – he’s coming for you. The tag is a biting microcosm of his style – sharp and stripped to its core so each line is delivered like an injection, leaving no ripples or words minced. It’s both traditionalist, and non-traditional at the same time – and so distinct that it’s been memed to death in the comments section of every one of his videos – he raps in MLA format or Times New Roman, he raps respectfully, and instead of killing you, he’s confiscating your life.

The LA County native is so much more than a novelty joke about his descriptiveness though. His style, which has spread LA street rap’s wings wider, combines Drakeo (who Remble said in an interview was his favorite artist before actually linking with the Stincs) and his slick writing, viciously clever wit and entendre-laden barrages, with a more enunciative clarity and skeletal approach. In other words, it takes a lot of what made Drakeo one of the greatest rappers of the last decade, and makes it more accessible. So accessible in fact, that the “Remble Dance” wherein one flexes while twisting their fists inside out has been gentrified by TikTok kids (with Remble’s more than willing approval).

But even post-gentrification, it still stands as the hottest and most popular dance in LA this year. Go to South Central, to Inglewood, to Compton, and even to Silverlake or UCLA and you’ll catch folks hitting this one. But more than just the dance, Remble and “Touchable”s impact is in their mesmerizing clarity, the street rapper who can summon demons at his beck and call who can still present nicely for your grandmother. This is the real LA, and it’s finally starting to catch on beyond the city’s limits and tuned-in rap aficionados. — Harley Geffner

1. RXK Nephew – “American tterroristt”

In my experience, when people first listen to RXK Nephew, they assume he’s joking. But his music is constantly prodding them: Are you sure? It’s funny to juxtapose theories about the government writing the Bible with complaints about American Idol, but is it really so ridiculous that the way a host of the century’s most popular game show talks to black people might bother him? Can you not picture the Rochester rapper pleading with his grandmother to leave the church that can’t answer his questions—or her bitterly telling a young Nephew that she can’t help him with his algebra homework? His voice is the ideal vehicle for non-sequiturs that knock you onto your back foot, but notice the weariness that creeps in as hell makes the unexpected pivot from broad political tropes to the horrifyingly personal:

“MS-13 climbed over the wall

Donald Trump can’t stop immigrants

Lost my ID, I’m an immigrant

They pulled me over like, ‘What’s your name?’”

At the heart of “American tterroristt,” the best of the nearly 450 songs Nephew released this year, is a sadness that the Mayans couldn’t outrun. Nephew is glib about Eve’s enticement of Adam and downright oafish when he raps about Will Smith, but sincerely heartbroken when he relives the adolescent discovery that Cassidy wasn’t really in the streets like that; when he points out the hypocrisy of praying to bless a dead animal’s flesh, he sounds as if he’s about to crawl out of his own skin.

Despite its sprawl, the nearly ten-minute song is shot through with superbly clever, concise lines, like “How the fuck y’all make that holy water?/Let me get some of that so I can cook a quarter” or his quip that post-federal prison Gucci Mane’s six pack came from starving at night in his cell. The song is novel, but not a novelty; it justifies its length by stretching from the Garden of Eden to TMZ and back again, swatting at religions (and True Religions) like so many locusts.

The obvious progenitor is Lil B, but where his based freestyles were a celebration of positivity and formal freedom, Nephew sounds trapped. Maybe more accurately, he sounds compelled: to confess, to warn. Imagine “Nature of the Threat” frying for a thousand years inside a cable modem. He is a wholly original writer stuck in a cosmic loop, watching Vlad TV with a scowl as the stars grow old and die. — Paul Thompson

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