It was New Year’s Eve when the news broke. MF DOOM was dead. As it turned out, the London-born, New York-raised, metal-faced microphone master actually passed away in October 2020. But with the announcement not coming until December 31, many hip-hop heads woke up in 2021 with a sinking feeling already nagging away at them as the new year kicked off.
The news of DOOM’s death compounded a sense of grief that many of us experienced throughout the year. After the misadventures of 2020, lots of us spent 2021 feeling like we needed to get over something — getting over the loss of loved ones; getting over months of isolation; getting over the fear of going back to nightclubs. As live music made a tentative, stuttering return, music fans dealt with the outside world in different ways. And music both new and old was crucial.
If the outpouring of emotion following DOOM’s passing proved anything, it’s how much fans still love the simple combination of an eloquent wordsmith and a soulful, sampladelic beat. True to the MF DOOM formula, many of 2021’s best rap albums sounded like updated, stripped-down versions of New York hip-hop records from the '90s. This retro embrace traces back to mid-2010s albums like Roc Marciano’s Marci Beaucoup (or even Joey Bada$$’s 2012 mixtape 1999), but it reached boiling point this year.
Few epitomize the trend better than Buffalo collective Griselda, who just possibly had their best year to date. Albums by Griselda members, signees and associates like Boldy James and the Alchemist’s Bo Jackson, Mach-Hommy’s Pray for Haiti, Benny the Butcher’s Burden of Proof and Conway the Machine’s La Maquina are among the year’s most accomplished releases — not all of them on the Griselda label, but all of them bearing the direct influence of Griselda’s vintage sound.
A rapping-first approach defines Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost, another of the year’s biggest records. Rather than the '90s, Tyler paid homage to the Gangsta Grillz series of the 2000s and early 2010s, a stream of mixtapes hosted DJ Drama featuring artists like Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane. Tyler enlisted DJ Drama for Call Me… while also crafting an elaborate narrative — as he tends to do — about a love triangle. Certain fans are convinced that the other two members of the ménage are Rocky and Rihanna, though there’s little evidence of that besides Tyler briefly hinting that he and Rocky fell out while he was recording the album.
While old-school production prevailed, this year some of hip-hop’s old-fashioned values were hung out to dry. Back in August 2020, as Megan and Cardi swapped salacities while celebrating the joy of a moist genital with “WAP,” hip-hop’s old guard clutched its pearls, with Snoop and Cee-Lo Green among those to voice a shock at the song’s lascivious content. Megan and Cardi did little more than laugh as “WAP” went platinum six times over, but their success marked a sea change in attitudes towards Black female sexuality. 2021 albums like Doja Cat’s Planet Her, Summer Walker’s Still Over It and Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales made no apology about exploring sex through the female gaze, placing high on several year-end lists while they were at it.
Also near the top of many such lists was Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” a single so brazenly unconcerned with pissing people off that it was hailed as a genius marketing strategy. Taking aim at sexual conservatism, homophobia, and religion, the “Montero” video showed Lil Nas getting off with a snake, getting killed by a butt-plug, pole-dancing into hell and grinding on the devil. He also sold 666 pairs of Air Max 97s (unsanctioned by Nike) with drops of human blood in the soles. The response was mixed, but the almost consensual condemnation of comments made about Lil Nas X by has-been rapper Boosie Badazz suggest that homophobia in hip-hop might finally be on its way out.
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t still happen. In July, DaBaby unleashed a stream of brainless homophobia during a performance at Miami’s Rolling Loud festival. He was cancelled, but then invited to one of Kanye’s grotesquely overblown DONDA livestream events along with alleged rapist Marilyn Manson. Ye was promptly added to the year’s growing list of hip-hop cancellations, while the impact of his subsequent album was eclipsed by the fuss surrounding his tedious beef with Drake. Drizzy’s Certified Lover Boy was at least better than DONDA, but the two albums did little more than confirm both artists are now past their best.
Instead, the year’s best music came from less familiar names and less obvious places. When a certain Canadian jumped on the remix of WizKid and Tems’ “Essence,” it was met with opposition from fans, arguing that the song was already big enough not to need a cosign from a Western megastar. The original remains the most popular version and it was a staple at any party that was worth attending over the summer.
Tems and WizKid are two stars of an ascendant Nigerian scene that is finally establishing itself on a global stage, with artists like Rema, DJ Neptune, Burna Boy, and Davido also contributing to 2021’s most beloved tunes. The Western hemisphere’s belated embrace of African sounds extends into other genres too. Saharan guitarist Mdou Moctar’s brilliant “desert blues” album Afrique Victime offers a new direction in rock music. The spread of South African dance sound amapiano onto dancefloors throughout Europe underlines the influence of diasporic beats in the global club scene. And the continued rise of drill rappers in Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, Yamoussoukro, and Kumasi hints at a future where Americans no longer dominate.
Further threatening the US monopoly is the increasing prevalence of UK rap artists on the world stage. After UK drill put Headie One on a Times Square billboard in 2020, 2021 saw something you’d have been laughed at for predicting just five years ago: British rappers in mainstream American publications. Rappers like Dave and Ghetts made albums that felt like artistic statements this year, carefully measured projects bursting with social commentary.
In the end only one UK MC truly pulled it off. On the majestic “Two Worlds Apart,” track three on her near-perfect opus Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz raps: “I was moving wild, but now I’m calmer; we was on the front line, listening to Kendrick Lamar.” Actually the way she says it makes it sound like “Kendrick Llama,” which is funny, but anyway, the album is probably the closest thing we’ve ever had to a British To Pimp a Butterfly, an era-defining masterwork by an artist who understands the voice as a musical instrument, knows their role in critiquing society and appreciates the power of a slamming tune.
By the end of 2021 we had also lost DMX, Biz Markie, Lee Scratch Perry, Michael K. Williams, Virgil Abloh, Drakeo the Ruler, and at least 10 hip-hop fans at the tragic music festival that was Astroworld. It was far from the year we needed to get over 2020, but the music helped.