As the year continues wind down, Our Generation Music’s editorial staff took a close look back at our favorite albums of 2021. While in no specific order — and striving to choose projects that held meaning across every sub-genre of hip-hop — each album carries its own weight with immense replay value for years to come. This is the first section of the 2021 Our Generation Awards, which will also cover staff-picked songs, music videos and feature our favorite rising stars from the blossoming new wave.
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Tyler, The Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost
It’s evident by now that Tyler, The Creator doesn’t just make music — he makes experiences. While CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST may be Sir Baudelaire’s vacation from reality, Wolf Haley is right beside him journaling his travels — finding the meaning of it all on the ride there. CMIYGL is not only the latest example of Tyler showcasing his instinctual level of storytelling, but also displays his knack for attaching purpose to every lyric, skit and track yet again. He’s boastful about who he is and where he’s been, seemingly praising his evolution as an artist while maintaining an underlying sense of truth amid his ferocious flexing. This era of Tyler’s persona is braggadocious, lustful and leaves nothing unsaid about what he’s feeling. Riding shotgun is DJ Drama, sitting ever so carefully between each turn the album takes. In true Gangsta Grillz fashion, Drama not only hypes up Tyler throughout the entirety of the record, but is irreplaceable from the album’s overall feel. Without Drama, there’s no CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, as Tyler’s finesse and poise over the course of the LP makes it a beacon of artistic reverence from the Odd Future oddball. — Jon Barlas
Vince Staples — Vince Staples
Vince Staples‘ albums are typically hyper-focused on a specific sound, theme or direction that details his mindset at the time. Most recently, his 2018 EP FM! oozed summer vibes featuring bouncy West Coast beats and interludes to emulate listening to a hip-hop radio station on the beach — sounding as energetic as he ever has. Following it up almost three years later, Vince delivered his most cohesive and sonically impressive project to date. His self-titled album, released in early July, displays Vince at his most poised and laid-back, but still contains the intimidating bars and braggadocio Staples has always carried with him. Executive produced by Kenny Beats — who always provides the juiciest 808s and funkiest of melodies — Vince Staples is full of glossy beats that are a perfect setting for Vince’s composed cadence. The sample on “LAW OF AVERAGES” and the stunning Fousheé hook on “TAKE ME HOME” make for some of the most enjoyable tracks in Vince Staples’ entire catalog. While brief (22 minutes), Vince Staples by Vince Staples makes its mark with unmatched consistency and a comforting setting that the listener never grows tired of. — Thomas Galindo
Kanye West — Donda
Kanye West had all eyes on him during Donda‘s months-long rollout, but that’s just how he likes it. Even after delaying his 11th studio album following four separate listening events, he dropped the evangelical hodgepodge of soulful ballads, aggressive trap and epic choir-driven escapade that is Donda in August and hasn’t looked back since. The track list and quality of Donda improved with each listening party, and the final product was a statement to the upper echelon of hip-hop projects this year. Newer, burgeoning artists like Fivio Foreign, Griselda’s Conway and Westside Gunn, Baby Keem, Vory and KayCyy had some of the most compelling, ear-catching performances on Donda, as seasoned veterans also did their part as JAY-Z’s marquee feature reunited The Throne on “Jail” and Jay Electronica’s trademark flow captured a politically-charged verse full of religious allusions and limitless wisdom. Kanye’s ear for talent, mixed with an obsession for perfection, led to a fine-tuned, full-length project that spans nearly two hours, but contains far less filler than any traditional hip-hop album that’s been shared in 2021. The entire gamut of human emotions is felt during Donda, with Kanye letting loose on cuts like “Off The Grid” and “Praise God,” but also delivering intensive bars about redemption, relationship issues and salvation on songs like “Come To Life,” “Pure Souls” with Roddy Ricch and “Believe What I Say.” Back in full form, it’s nice to have Ye back where he belongs: at the top. — Thomas Galindo
Playboi Carti — Whole Lotta Red
One of the most highly-anticipated, if not the most anticipated album of the last three years, came in the form of a Christmas miracle in 2020. After years… I repeat YEARS of teasing the project followed by months of silence after his unprovoked single “@ MEh,” Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red was ultimately a defining moment for modern hip-hop — capturing the overall essence of 2021’s catalog in every way, shape and form. While released in the final days of 2020, WLR exists as a true 2021 album, as countless memories, memes and his subsequent NARCISSIST TOUR all occurred in the past year. It didn’t start off that way though, as its first few weeks on DSPs brought forth feelings of disdain with first-time listeners initially marking the album as “Trash” upon its release. Now, fans are singing a different tune, as it has ultimately become one of the most beloved projects this year had to offer. With an exotic trap-infused sound and intensely unique style, it took fans months to become accustomed to this “new wave” sound that would soon take over hip-hop’s soundscape. As fans adjusted, so did artists, with many of them — especially around the underground scene — starting to tap into Carti’s pioneered wave of “rage production.” With that in mind, Whole Lotta Red is a contender for the most influential album of the year, setting the tone and opening the floodgates for a new era of music. — Mason Kirby
Young Thug — PUNK
Young Thug seems to age like a fine wine the longer he lingers, with his music becoming more tasteful as time goes on. 2021 not only proved to continue this trend, but with the release of his long-awaited second studio album Punk — amid an ocean of chart-topping mixtapes and EPs — Thugger delivered a savory mix of bangers that are made to last for years to come. Initially, fans got a sneak peak of the project when Thug visited NPR’s Tiny Desk in September, where he performed “Die Slow,” “Dropping Jewels” and “Hate The Game.” Givenchy gave Thugger a platform to preview more material at their Spring/Summer 2022 Collection show, where he played extended versions of “Hate the Game” and “Love You More” featuring Gunna, Jeff Bhasker and Nate Ruess. Upon the night of its release, Thug delayed Punk by two hours to add a last-minute feature, later revealed to be Post Malone. Along with Drake, Future, A$AP Rocky, Juice WRLD, Mac Miller, Doja Cat and more, the lineup on this project was simply fantastic. As Young Thug embraced a sound filled with acoustic melodies, his introspective and atmospheric cadences fueled the album’s overall impact on tracks like “Rich N**** Shit,” “Stupid/Asking” and “Droppin Jewels.” With the YSL head honcho still operating at the top of his game after a decade into his career, Punk is unquestionably a crown jewel atop Thug’s discography and one of 2021’s best because of it. — Nimai Kumar
Baby Keem — The Melodic Blue
At 21-years-old, Baby Keem has become the poster boy of versatility in hip-hop, as his talent, ear and overall musical ability are off the charts in every respect. Instead of fitting into a contemporary trap lane like many of his peers, he takes inspiration from them and creates something entirely unique. Simply put, you know a Baby Keem song when you hear it — unmistakable in both his sound and cadence. With his 2019 mixtape DIE FOR MY BITCH introducing listeners to the eclectic, irreverent nature of Keem’s sound, Keem asserted his mark on the game with bombastic, in-your-face production that is always prone to take listeners by surprise — whether that be a quickly-placed transition or a beat switch-up altogether. With a one-of-a-kind flow, Keem took his talents to a whole new level in 2021 on his debut album The Melodic Blue — creating an sea of euphoric, hard-hitting cuts announcing the Vegas-born star’s entrance into hip-hop’s mainstream. With cuts like the anthemic “Trademark USA” and the warmly-produced “Pink Panties,” Keem thrives off the unexpected, as sudden shifts in sound scatter themselves all over the LP. The lead single for the project “Family Ties” not only made Baby Keem a household name — linking up with fellow pgLang member and cousin Kendrick Lamar — Keem is constantly metamorphosing his sound into something new, as the pair put forth one of the best tracks 2021 had to offer. Kendrick’s eccentric ad-libs on “range brothers” only add to the unpredictability and overall enjoyment of the project, and his contribution on “vent” makes the song punch 10 times harder than it would without him. Keem even samples one of his biggest inspirations in Kanye West — who featured him on Donda‘s star-studded cut “Praise God” — for “scars,” incorporating the thunderous drum progression found in Ye’s “Love Lockdown.” All in all, it’s evident that Baby Keem will continue to push boundaries as his career moves onward. — Tyler Zucker
Pi’erre Bourne — The Life Of Pi’erre 5
Having released four projects over the course of 2021, it’s safe to say that Pi’erre Bourne has been nothing short of magnificent. Of his recent collection of music, however, The Life of Pi’erre 5 was a head-turning moment for the trap pioneer’s rap career. Still striving to earn respect as a lyricist among a mainstream audience, the ultra-talented producer-rapper’s TLOP series continues to define his producing and rapping abilities alike. The album itself is woven together with each beat starting with remnants of the song before it — and so on and so forth. Pi’erre uses this to his advantage on TLOP5, as the album feels more like an interconnected, cohesive playlist rather than a full-length LP. Bourne’s signature heavy-synth melodies are used frequently throughout the record. Accompanied by airy bells and wavy percussion, Pi’erre’s hooks and verses flow over each track perfectly — fitting the vibe for both late-night drivers and pre-game aux-handlers. On tracks like “Retroville,” “40 Clip” and “HULU,” Bourne’s hit-making ability truly shines through in his glistening production chops. He spits melodic verses over each of these tracks with high-tempo and high-energy, as the beats fill in the blanks he leaves for himself. Pierre acts as his own one-two punch, as it’s extremely hard not to admire the talent he possesses curating something as a unique as TLOP5. Admittedly stealing some flows and cadences from longtime collaborator Playboi Carti, Pi’erre inherently morphs it into his own style. On tracks like “Practice,” “Couch” and “Biology 101,” Bourne stays in his bag with these heavy auto-tuned cuts. Assembling hooks that not only get stuck in your head, the production strategy behind TLOP5 is truly the star of the show. In short, Bourne has pulled out all the stops — creating a unique listening experience for all that immerse themselves in it — as TLOP5 is Bourne’s best effort to date. — Mason Kirby / Jon Barlas
Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning
Isaiah Rashad made a spectacular comeback this year with The House Is Burning, an unexpected return to the spotlight that TDE’s secret weapon always has the ability to do. Bringing back his trademark, laidback delivery, THIB’s 16 tracks curates some of Zay’s best music to date with help from some of our generation’s favorite acts. Kicking off its rollout mid-summer, Zay tapped Duke Deuce for “Lay Wit Ya” — a distinctly Memphis banger with tons of energy across the board. Along with Lil Uzi Vert’s fast-paced verse on “From The Garden,” Smino, Jay Rock, SZA, 6LACK and more all added to Rashad’s modern masterpiece, reminding listeners why they fell in love with his music in the first place. His mellow, jazzy demeanor is consistent all over the project, with a couple of detours to turn things up. Just last month, fans of Isaiah received The House Is Burning [homies begged], a deluxe of the original project with four unreleased songs which seemingly elevated Rashad’s sophomore LP to greater acclaim. The House Is Burning was a triumphant callback to TDE’s prowess within hip-hop, as Rashad took the reins as Top Dawg’s top dog with his 2021 effort. — Nimai Kumar
Ty Fontaine — Ascension
Ty Fontaine has not only ascended to an entirely different level in 2021, he’s asserted that he’s here to stay for many years to come. While the 24-year-old star in the making offered his first independent album Ascension in June, Fontaine shared the album’s complementary deluxe in October — bringing forth a Virtual World of bangers that seemingly define the essence of the new wave. With atmospheric, ethereal cuts like “RIP WHITNEY” and “24 / Can’t Miss,” Fontaine embodies what it means to be an artist in this day and age — an encapsulating creative who refuses to stay one-dimensional. The former Internet Money artist’s trademark sound on Virtual World 2 — the follow-up to his 5-track 2020 mixtape — is packed with vibrant production and tons of new wave talent behind him. Across both records, the DC-based superstar displays his refined vocal versatility comparable to Young Thug and Playboi Carti. While Fontaine continues to build his discography, there’s no doubt that Ascension is one of 2021’s best offerings — introducing a refined level of dexterity and track presence in every verse he’s penned.
Mach–Hommy — Pray For Haiti
2021 was a breakthrough year for Griselda’s Mach-Hommy. Although he’s been steadily growing an online fanbase, he has yet to make a splash in the mainstream until his latest record Pray For Haiti dropped this past year. Executive produced by Westside Gunn, Pray for Haiti is a stellar addition to his already stacked discography, in which the Newark-bred rapper slides over the luxurious, frequently drum-less production and gives listeners a taste of Haiti all while giving out a gold mine of punchlines and wordplay. Producers Danny LaFlare, Conductor Williams, Camoflauge Monk and more fill the album with enough variety that allows Mach to constantly shift his approach — whether it’s diving headfirst into the Donuts inspired beat on “Markel Jaxon” or singing the hook on the slow-paced “Kriminel.” He’s a chameleon at work and adjusts to whatever is thrown at him. Above all, his lyrics are almost completely unmatched. “Oh word your raps braggadocious? Put this .38 in your mouth; go head and spit your magnum opus” he questions on “No Blood No Sweat.” He’s constantly daring rivals to make something as good as him, but even he knows that there’s no one doing it like he is. Mach may be known for evading the public eye, but on Pray For Haiti, he demands for listeners’ attention and makes sure to paint a picture of not only himself, but of his home nation of Haiti. On one of the final tracks of the album, “Au Revoir,” he mentions how he wants people to know about him and how connected he is to his roots. Whether it’s through the sampled clips or skits scattered throughout the album or if it’s through Mach himself rapping in Creole, it’s apparent how much of Haiti he put into the project. And with all that, he most certainly deserves to be mentioned as an album of the year nominee — perhaps slighted for a 2021 Grammy nomination.
The Off-season — J.Cole
J. Cole’s topical focus shifts for each of his official releases. For 2018’s KOD it was the negative effects of drug use and social media. For 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only, he displayed his elite storytelling about race relations in America and growing up in adverse conditions. 2021’s The Off-Season saw Cole detail his multifaceted life at the moment. Released in May, The Off-Season kicked off a jam-packed summer of rap, and gave fans an update on how the beloved poet has been doing this year. In the midst of settling into a family life with a wife and kids, and going overseas to Africa to launch his professional basketball career, Cole still delivers some of the most quality rapping and beat selection of his career. Over time, he has honed in on increasing harmonies and crooning in his music, and The Off-Season was the finest showcase of those attributes any of his albums have ever presented. Whether it be himself, like on “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” with Lil Baby and “a m a r i,” fellow Dreamville artist Bas on “1 0 0 . m i l ‘“ and “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” which also includes 6lack or blossoming soulful North Carolina native Morray on “m y . l i f e” with 21 Savage, the sung hooks and bridges were all magnificent. With skillful lyricism and timely assists, J. Cole’s determination is evident, as if he were running out of a tunnel before a ball game, making The Off-Season one of 2021’s best rap albums.
Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert — Little Simz
British-Nigerian rapper Little Simz made a name for herself on her third album Grey Area bouncing from hard-hitting, confident boasts like “Boss” to the playful and catchiness of “101FM.” Now with her fourth album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, she goes for a much cinematic sound and executes it perfectly. On the triumphant sounding intro “Introvert,” Simz poses a question that becomes the thesis of the album. “I hate the thought of just being a burden/I hate that these conversations are surfaced/Simz the artist or Simbi the person?” she asks during the second verse. As the title suggests, the project is a deeply introspective look into Simz herself. She alternates perspective, talking to herself as Simbi, her legal name, during the more inner moments on the album but on songs like “Rolling Stone” she’s Simz the rapper and showing off her extraverted side. It’s this duality that she wrestles with and on the closer “Miss Understood,” she seems that much closer to finally balancing both sides of her personality. There would be no Little Simz without Simbi and there’s no Simbi without Little Simz. The production choices pair with this inner battle brilliantly with many of the songs ranging from from orchestral and cinematic like on the opener to the soulfulness on “I Love You, I Hate You” to a grooving, funk beat on afro-centric “Point and Kill” featuring Obongjayer. It all cumulates into yet another masterfully-crafted album and another highlight for Little Simz.