HNHH shares staff selections from 2021.
As a final hurrah for year-end list time, we’re offering a quick snapshot at the team’s personal favorites with a staff picks de-briefing. After detailing countdowns for the Hottest Albums and Hottest Songs of 2021, we also asked our writers to choose their favorite album and favorite song from 2021, allowing us to expand on some of our personal heavy-hitters. Unsurprisingly, then, you’ll see several of the artists referenced below have also made an appearance (or two) on one of the year-end rankings.
We invite you to join our comment section and share your personal picks as well– choose one album and one song to co-sign below as your favorite of 2021, and tell us why.
Stay on the lookout for our Christmas series starting up today too (!), as we usher in the “12 Days of Christmas” with the return of our wrap-up interviews.
ALEX ZIDEL – MANAGING EDITOR
ALBUM PICK: Baby Keem – The Melodic Blue
In a year that was filled with full-length releases from some of hip-hop’s greatest all-time artists, it may be surprising that one of the genre’s relative newcomers ended up delivering one of the best albums of the entire year.
On his debut studio album The Melodic Blue, Las Vegas-raised rapper Baby Keem came through with one of this year’s strongest bodies of work. The Melodic Blue continued a breakout campaign for Two-Phone Baby Keem, which started with his 2019 project DIE FOR MY BITCH. That tape was well-regarded and contained some of Keem’s biggest songs to date, including “ORANGE SODA” and “HONEST.” On his official debut though, Keem opens up with his listeners on a new level, shedding off another layer of his personality and combining his unique storytelling with quirky vocals, amusing ad-libs, stunning production, and enough beat-switches to keep you on your toes during the entire listening experience.
The Melodic Blue is one of the albums with the strongest replay value from the year, which is surely why it’s been receiving such high praise since its release. Just the other week, Baby Keem earned four GRAMMY nominations, including two for “family ties” featuring Kendrick Lamar, one for Best New Artist, and another for his contributions to Kanye West’s DONDA.
The Melodic Blue showed many why Baby Keem can operate in his own space without solely relying on Kendrick’s co-sign, proving to millions that he’s here to stay for a long time.
More favorites: Doja Cat – Planet Her, Kanye West – DONDA, YSL – Slime Language 2,Lil Nas X – MONTERO
SONG PICK: Kanye West – “Off The Grid” (feat. Fivio Foreign & Playboi Carti)
“Off The Grid” almost seemed like it wouldn’t actually arrive, before eventually ending up on year-end lists like this one. At first, it was rumored to be part of Playboi Carti’s album Whole Lotta Red after a preview of the record was leaked in late 2020. When it ultimately didn’t land on the WLR tracklist, fans started begging for the song, pleasantly surprised to hear it during the first DONDA listening session in Atlanta. When Kanye West previewed the track a second time the next day, it had been elevated with a stand-out verse from New York rapper Fivio Foreign, which may very well be the best verse of his career.
From Ye’s hyped-up hook, to Playboi Carti’s rage-ready verse, to the subtle addition of drill production during Fivio’s, “Off The Grid” is one of the undisputed best hip-hop songs of the year because it shows just how much Ye can truly bring out of his collaborators. Throughout DONDA, Ye gets the best out of his featured artists, and Fivio’s verse is a perfect example of that.
Off the strength of this song, Kanye agreed to executive produce Fivio’s next album, so we can potentially stay tuned for more of this magic in the new year.
More favorites: YSL – “Ski,” Sleepy Hallow – “2055,” Polo G – “Rapstar,” Nardo Wick – “Who Want Smoke??,” Lil Nas X – “Industry Baby” feat. Jack Harlow, BRS Kash – “Throat Baby”
ERIKA MARIE – STAFF WRITER
ALBUM PICK: Madlib – Sound Ancestors
Arguably, Madlib is one of the most respected musicians who is still considered to be underrated in commercial arenas. As an artist who emerged in the early 1990s, Madlib has an uncanny ability to incorporate the best parts of genres including electronica and jazz, fusing them into a Hip Hop sound that reflects an underground scene often ignored by the masses— all while also paying homage to historical influences. All too often, Hip Hop fans spark conversations about the genre returning to its roots, and Madlib’s Sound Ancestors proves that it never left, but just evolved.
The album was arranged and mastered by Four Tet, a British producer who has known Madlib for two decades. The latter has long pushed the envelope in Hip Hop production, but his ability to successfully experiment with elements of punk rock and marching band drum beats while simultaneously taking listeners through a funk, soul-influenced journey cannot be duplicated.
As its title suggests, the inspiration behind Sound Ancestors isn’t tangible but is meant to be felt and experienced. A common reflection on the album is that even with Madlib’s jump from one genre to the next, he has an otherworldly ability to create music that is deliberate, focused, and poignant. “Spirits come into play when you do a certain type of music,” he told NPR. “Sometimes I’m not even doing the music, sometimes that’s just sound ancestors. That is what I mean by that.”
More favorites: Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost, Terrace Martin – Drones, Vince Staples – Vince Staples, Brockhampton – Roadrunner, Doja Cat – Planet Her, Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
SONG PICK: Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open”
It isn’t easy to give updated takes on music from the past. Artists lean on sampling to modernize some of our favorite classic hits, especially rappers and producers who were able to carve successful careers out of the practice. When Silk Sonic eased into the scene as the brainchild of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, fans were enthused at the possibility of having these two bring back those crooning, soulful R&B days of the 1970s. With a little help from Thundercat and Parliament-Funkadelic icon Bootsy Collins, Mars and .Paak managed to evoke nostalgic energy on their project An Evening with Silk Sonic in a manner that has often failed other artists who have attempted similar executions.
The pair’s introductory single was the illustrious “Leave the Door Open” that arrived with a glamour shot-styled music video that paid homage to those vintage studio sessions of time’s past. D’Mile and Brody Brown helmed the responsibility of penning the megahit while Mars and D’Mile collaborated on its production. The single would not only be a commercial success, peaking at the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, but a viral sensation—earning the duo four Grammy nominations—but the remainder of An Evening with Silk Sonic deserves just as much praise.
Mars and .Paak have expressed that it was their intention to create a joint project that would be a “feel-good” record—a collection of songs that weren’t heavy but instead were poised for parties, late-night drives, and fun-filled live shows. These two created the perfect balance on the croon-heavy “Leaving the Door Open,” thinking outside of the box during a time in music culture where the current state of R&B is often criticized. If other artists of this magnitude are looking to form “supergroups,” Mars and .Paak should be the modern blueprint.
More favorites: Russ, Lil Baby – “Ugly,” Baby Keem, Kendrick Lamar – “Family Ties,” DJ Khaled, Nas, Jay – “Sorry Not Sorry,” Vince Staples – “Law of Averages”
TAYLOR MCCLOUD – STAFF WRITER
ALBUM PICK: Vince Staples – Vince Staples
After emerging on the scene in 2011 with Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1 and cementing his spot two years later on the Larry Fisherman-produced Stolen Youth, Vince Staples embarked on a prolific rap journey, dropping an album or mixtape every year until 2018.
In the three years of radio silence that followed FM!, the Long Beach native remained active on social media and turned in a number of classic Vince Staples interview clips, but fans wondered what his next project would sound like.
Enter, Vince Staples.
Following a 2020 that saw the world shut down due to COVID-19, the self-titled record finds Staples rehashing many of the stories he had told before, but in an entirely new light. Gone are the in-your-face, electronic instrumentals that made Staples one of the most polarizing rappers in the game. In their place are ten Kenny Beats’ instrumentals that are musically fulfilling, but simple enough to give Staples the space he needs to get everything off his chest.
From “ARE YOU WITH THAT?” to “MHM,” Staples utilizes melody in ways he hadn’t before, and embraces the qualities that make him one of the best interview subjects in hip hop. Rapping in a tone closer to his speaking voice than his tone on the iconic “Norf Norf,” Staples creates an intimate environment perfect for storytelling and weaving intricate melodies throughout verses and hooks.
While Vince Staples is a pivot from Staples’ previous releases, the record is a testament to his artistic versatility, and one of the best albums of 2021.
More favorites: Baby Keem – The Melodic Blue, Drake – Certified Lover Boy, Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud – Plugs I Met 2
SONG PICK: Conway, the Machine – “Piano Love”
Conway the Machine was meant to rap on Alchemist beats, and Alchemist was meant to make beats for Conway the Machine.
Two prolific artists, the pair came together in 2020 for LULU, a seven-track EP that saw Conway and Al playing off each other like Stockton and Malone in ‘97. A year-and-a-half later, the “14 KI’s” collaborators blessed fans with “Piano Love,” a single from Conway’s upcoming album, God Don’t Make Mistakes.
“Piano Love” is nothing like Stockton and Malone. It’s more like Shaq and Penny.
With Al picking out some ominous keys and Conway lacing every snare pattern with a bar harder than its predecessor, “Piano Love” is in-your-face and pulls no punches. Flexing about big Chanel bags and his connection with the owners of the Buffalo Bills, Conway the Machine continues to prove he is one of the best rappers in the game and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest rappers of all time.
A combination of Alchemist’s signature sound and Conway’s impeccable ability to mesh drug talk and designer talk, “Piano Love” is a perfect preview for God Don’t Make Mistakes, and one of the best rap songs of 2021.
More favorites: Baby Keem – “Issues,” A$AP Rocky – Sandman, Drake – “Yebba’s Heartbreak”
HAYLEY HYNES – STAFF WRITER
ALBUM PICK: Doja Cat – Planet Her
If we were to crown a queen of TikTok anthems in 2021, it would have to be Doja Cat. Audio from the 26-year-old’s June drop-off, Planet Her, took over For You pages all across the world this year, cementing her status as a pop-rap icon.
While “Kiss Me More” featuring SZA, “Need to Know,” “Ain’t Shit,” “Get Into It (Yuh)” and “Woman,” are the most popular titles on the tracklist, the 14-song long project also includes noteworthy collaborations with the likes of JID, Young Thug, and Ariana Grande. The deluxe edition, which arrived on June 27th, saw Doja tap Eve and Gunna to assist on “Tonight” and “Why Why,” respectively.
Strangely enough, while Planet Her has been nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album at the upcoming Grammy awards, the California-born recording artist actually took home two American Music Awards from the R&B category for her efforts on the record. Social media users weren’t afraid to express their discontent over the decision, but ultimately, many admitted that Doja Cat’s star-power can’t be denied.
More favorites: Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost, Tinashe – 333, Kanye West – DONDA, Drake – Certified Lover Boy, Yebba – Dawn
Lil Nas X – MONTERO, JoJo – trying not to think about it, James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart
SONG PICK: Summer Walker – “No Love” (with SZA)
“No Love” is the third track on Summer Walker’s highly anticipated sophomore project, Still Over It. The song details the fallout of a toxic relationship, and how, when looking back afterward, it’s easy to realize that you probably shouldn’t have taken things so seriously.
“If I had you back / I wouldn’t have did all that,” the 25-year-old confesses to listeners – this is just one of the many moments during which she throws shade at her baby daddy/the executive producer of her last album, Over It, London on Da Track.
While the drama was arguably the record’s biggest appeal, it’s also worth noting that Walker’s 20-track project saw features from plenty of industry giants. Ciara, Pharrell Williams, Cardi B, and Ari Lennox all appear, but there’s something particularly sweet about the medley between her and a sultry SZA.
More favorites: Swedish House Mafia & The Weeknd – “Moth to a Flame,” James Blake – “Famous Last Words,” Tech N9ne – “Face Off” feat. Joey Cool, King Iso & Dwayne Johnson, Kanye West – “Praise God,” Kanye West – “Jail,” JoJo – “Anxiety (Burlinda’s Theme),” Lil Nas X – “Dead Right Now”
ALEX COLE – SPORTS & SNEAKER EDITOR
ALBUM PICK: Kanye West – DONDA
After grappling with the death of his mother Donda for over 10 years, Kanye West decided to release an album in her honor. With a new interest in gospel and religious-based music at his disposal, it only felt right that Kanye would honor his mom with such sounds. In DONDA, Ye created a DIY masterpiece that took many forms over the course of a tumultuous month of live concerts. With each new live show, Kanye was able to show off new songs while also updating songs that fans had previously heard. This approach led to an album that sounds like the lovechild of Jesus Is King and The Life Of Pablo.
The tracklist is disjointed and at times, the sequencing makes very little sense. Regardless, the songs themselves are truly something to marvel at. Whether it be the Lil Baby and The Weeknd-assisted “Hurricane,” or the heavenly Don Toliver vocals on “Moon,” there are plenty of reasons here to get misty-eyed. Not to mention, this album contains perhaps the best banger of the year in “Off The Grid,” which features a godly verse from Fivior Foreign. It may not be Kanye’s best, but the album still stands as one of the best pieces of work to come out this year.
More favorites: Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost, Doja Cat – Planet Her
SONG PICK: Tyler, The Creator (ft. NBA YoungBoy & Ty Dolla $ign) – “WusYaName”
Tyler, The Creator’s latest release Call Me If You Get Lost was easily one of the best albums of the year. After taking a more melodic and R&B approach with IGOR, Tyler got back to rapping with CMIYGL, and it certainly paid off as Tyler gave us some truly memorable tracks. One such offering was the NBA YoungBoy and Ty Dolla $ign-aided track “WusYaName” which dazzled fans when they first heard it.
The song sees Tyler wooing a disinterested woman who is already in a relationship. Tyler is trying to convince the woman to walk away from it all and come join him, backed by soulful production and beautifully-sung background vocals from Ty Dolla. Not to mention, YoungBoy’s verse on the track is a breath of fresh air that took many fans by surprise thanks to just how melodic it is. This blending of sounds is what makes Tyler such a genius, and it all came together as a highlight on a near-perfect project.
More favorites: Kanye West – “Off The Grid” feat. Fivio Foreign & Playboi Carti, Doja Cat – “Woman,” Lil Nas X – “Industry Baby” feat. Jack Harlow.
ARON A. – WEEKEND EDITOR
ALBUM PICK: Tyler, The Creator – Call Me When You Get Lost
After years of carving his own lane, Tyler, The Creator asserted himself into rap conversations in 2021. It comes after a near-decade of critical praise from rap outlets and rap fans, though not all hip-hop circles celebrated him in the same capacity that alternative and/or hipster crowds did.
In that sense, Call Me When You Get Lost marked a change in tides in Tyler’s career. Tapping DJ Drama to create an unofficial installment in the Gangsta Grillz series, the Odd Future frontman offers a breath of worldliness into the rap game with his new project. It’s inspired by the mid-2000s mixtape era, where artists like Jeezy and Lil Wayne — who appears on “HOT WIND BLOWS” — reigned supreme. Drama’s hosting duties on the record bring a nostalgic value. However, the aristocratic flexes of Tyler’s new alter ego inform Drama’s drops. “Ladies and gentlemen, we just landed in Geneva. Yeah, that’s in Switzerland,” Drama yells at the top of the Weezy-assisted track. “We on a yacht. A young lady just fed me French vanilla ice cream. We all got our toes out, too.” Through his new identity as Tyler Baudelaire — a reference to controversial French poet Charles Baudelaire — he’s channeling levels of affluence with grandiose flexes that reak of old money across the album.
Tyler expands on what he delivered on IGOR and Flower Boy experimental production, and bright melodies, with dashes of jazz, bossa nova, and reggae weaved throughout. Still, CMIGL is a return to form for Tyler, both production-wise and lyrically. Songs like “LUMBERJACK” contain production that feels connected to Bastard and Goblin while the NBA Youngboy-assisted “WUSYANAME” calls to Flower Boy.
Tyler, The Creator has always been consistent, though his last two albums captured his stark evolution post-Cherry Bomb. On Call Me if You Get Lost, Tyler, The Creator proves that he’s the strongest one-man army in hip-hop, as a producer who can tie his eccentric sound to those of 42 Dugg and Teezo Touchdown, just as easily as he can bring Brent Faiyaz into his world and get one of the best verses out of Lil Wayne this year.
More favorites: Benny The Butcher & Harry Fraud – The Plugs I Met 2, Pooh Shiesty – Shiesty Season
SONG PICK: Drake – “N 2 Deep” Ft. Future
Drake did what Drake does on Certified Lover Boy, and that’s successfully making hits. These days, there’s a sense of familiarity that comes with Drake’s extravagant flexes, his vulnerable confessions of romance, and even his ear for beats.
CLB didn’t miss on the tradition of paying homages to cities like Atlanta and Houston, both of which have been integral in forming his sound. Though he couldn’t match the eccentricities of Future and Young Thug on the cringe-y lead single, “Way 2 Sexy,” his second collab with Fewtch on CLB makes up for it. “N 2 Deep” delves deep into his appreciation for Houston, without the controversial inclusion of R. Kelly. The isolated grungy guitars from Bun B’s “Get Throwed” get the chopped-n-screwed treatment for a slow-burning build-up into the infectious second-half of the record where Future strikes with opulent toxicity, proposing sex in exchange for Audemar Pigeut and indulging in copious amounts of substances until the sun rises. Drake’s vocals are submerged into reverb, amplifying the spacey, intergalactic production, thanks to the work of Kid Masterpiece and Harley Arsenault.
For many, Drake’s Certified Lover Boy wasn’t the project that it was anticipated to be. Complaints of Drake being stagnant in his career have riddled the timeline over the past five years but it’s moments like “N 2 Deep” that offer a gateway into where Drake could head next, whether he chooses to push the boundaries or not.
More favorites: Skiifall – “Bentayga Dust,” Tyler, The Creator – “Hot Wind Blows,” feat. Lil Wayne
ROSE LILAH – EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
ALBUM PICK: Key Glock – Yellow Tape 2
While the year surely ended on a sour note for Key Glock, who lost his best friend, cousin, business partner, and boss, in Young Dolph (may he rest in peace), the rapper has had an impressive run, one which seemingly started in 2020, too. Glock has been steadily cruising under the mainstream radar, with flashes of viral success and unsuspecting Billboard-charting thanks to his unrelenting work ethic and his equally unrelenting sound. This sound was fully realized on Yellow Tape 2, a follow-up to 2020’s album of the same name. While every project Glock releases is prime for back-to-back bangers, Yellow Tape 2 kicked it up a notch, enveloping more of Glock into the record as he grappled with personal matters somewhat more openly on his music.
The album begins at a fervent pace with the almost Christmas-esque bells on “Something Bout Me,” and from there Glock simply does not let up for 20 songs– and what’s even more impressive is that he does this without a single feature. And what’s even more impressive about that, is the fact that he’s able to keep our (captive) attention and, indeed, our excitement throughout the course of the tracklist, where we see artists struggle to maintain a listener for similarly-long tracklists that are also littered with stream-grasping features. And yet, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Glock’s history and Dolph’s too– the two are notorious for their lack of features (apart from each other, perhaps). In that notoriety, they tend to work with a small pool of producers too, and it’s these producers that we also owe some credit to, for creating such a succinct and cohesive body of work with Key Glock for Yellow Tape 2 – that is, Bandplay, Tay Keith, and a handful of others, including Juicy J for the smooth piano-riddled album closer “Gangsta.”
More favorites: Doja Cat – Planet Her, serpentwithfeet – DEACON, Money Man – Blockchain, Tems – If Orange Was a Place
SONG PICK: Lil Tjay – “Calling My Phone” feat. 6lack
When reflecting on what might be my personal pick for the top song of the year, this was one of the first songs that came to mind, if only for its immense replay value propelling me throughout all of 2021 (considering it did drop in February). Yet, “Calling My Phone” is also about more than just its earworm sensibilities.
Since his debut album in 2019, Lil Tjay has continued to show and prove– and perhaps, more importantly for a burgeoning artist– grow. The nasally-voiced artist, who first broke out for his Justin Bieber interpolations on YouTube, is clearly maturing, evidenced not only in “Calling My Phone” but in the larger album it was attached to, 2021’s Destined to Win. He’s maintained the keen melodic bent across his music that thrust him into the spotlight, but with “Calling My Phone,” the sound feels overall darker and more grown, as Tjay himself attempts to grow — to move on from a relationship turned sour. The accompanying production, from Bordeaux, G. Ry, and Nonnative is stripped-down, simple yet effective in its minimal piano keys, punctuated bass, and chipmunk-voiced hook; all elements which make the song an easy choice to keep on a loop, as it sort of lulls you into a meditative state, perhaps reflecting on your own relationships or else just crooning to Tjay’s.
The song, which was first teased in 2020 and proceeded to become among Tjay’s most talked about snippets, went on to become both artists’ highest-charting single to date, after debuting at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And as evidence of its staying power, it continues to climb up the ranks among Tjay’s most-streamed records, surely on its way to surpass early hits like “F.N.” “Calling My Phone” is the type of record that will now keep a special spot with Tjay’s discography, and it was certainly one of the best collabs we received in 2021.
More favorites: Drake “Champagne Poetry,” Yebba – “Love Came Down,” Key Glock – “Ambition for Cash”
JOSHUA ROBINSON – STAFF WRITER
SONG PICKS: Injury Reserve — “Knees”
Injury Reserve’s sophomore album, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, made a sharp detour from the sound the group established on its 2019 self-titled debut, and depending on who you look to for reviews, it was either praised for being experimental or criticized for being unlistenable. That being said, BTTIGTP is an album that you have to spend a considerable amount of time with, and after doing so, you’ll find that beneath its abrasive exterior, it’s one of the most emotive albums of the year. No song on the album better illustrates that than “Knees,” its lead single and the first song that the group released since the passing of Jordan “Stepa J.” Groggs in 2020.
Both disorienting and endearing, “Knees” pushes past its off-kilter meter to wash listeners over with an arresting wave of grief. Just like last year, 2021 has been a heartbreaking year for countless people, and “Knees” captures that feeling of having to keep moving forward with one’s life despite being engulfed in pain. Sometimes life can be a hard pill to swallow, and Injury Reserve’s BTTIGTP standout track “Knees” is a dark, yet beautiful testament to that. Rest in peace, Stepa J.
More favorites: Kenny Mason – Angelic Hoodrat: Super Cut, Mustafa – When Smoke Rises, Vince Staples – Vince Staples, Injury Reserve – By The Time I Get To Finish
ALBUM PICK: Drake — Certified Lover Boy
Whether it’s due to the meme-y cover art or the exhausting Ye v. Drake debate, Certified Lover Boy quickly became an album that people love to pretend to hate. Admittedly, it wasn’t the Toronto superstar’s best body of work or the most daring album of 2021, but not too many other albums released this year were constructed as well as CLB. Its strategic pacing and sequencing made for a 1.5-hour record that, remarkably, doesn’t feel overbearing, and several standout tracks on CLB hit at the perfect time, whether it’s the burst of energy on “You Only Live Twice” that creeps from the shadows of the infectious Ty Dolla Sign collab “Get Along Better” or the Notorious B.I.G.-assisted transition from “In The Bible” to “Love All.”
In addition to the album being structured in a way that strengthens its replay value, CLB found Drake delivering one of his best lyrical performances in roughly half a decade, and the stylistic flourishes on tracks like “IMY2” and “Race My Mind” are great album cuts that are reminiscent of Drake’s early experimentation on projects like So Far Gone. From the villainous humor of “Papi’s Home” to the sobering closer “The Remorse,” Certified Lover Boy made for a fresh and fun listening experience, and it will be interesting to see how it ages in the years to come.
More favorites: YSL – “Paid The Fine,” Mick Jenkins – “Scottie Pippen,” Nicki Minaj – “Seeing Green,” Drake – “Papi’s Home”