These are the Best Hip Hop Songs from 2021
Let’s face reality, the last two years have been brutal for the whole music industry. The pandemic forced tours, big and small, to be cancelled with no real understanding of when live music would come back. This meant that artists and labels had to decide whether to release new music with no tour or sit on new albums for who knows how long. Still, music always seems to find a way to reach fans, and a global pandemic wasn’t going to keep hip hop’s top artists from dropping new material. In many ways, 2021 offered an opportunity to younger, less well-known artists to make a name for themselves because a lot of hip hop’s mainstay artists didn’t release anything really exciting in 2021. The much anticipated Donda from Kanye West (are we still calling him Ye or not?) met with a critical shrug despite far too much hype prior to the record’s release. So, in this post, we’re going to take a look at the top hip hop songs from 2021, and we’re also going to comment on some of the biggest questions being asked about rap today. As we said, newer artists are breaking through and making big names for themselves, and this can mean a seismic shift for who wears the crown of rap royalty. For example, have you ever wondered who would win in a rap battle, Lil’ Baby or Eminem? Well, we’re going to try to answer these burning questions once and for all. We’re also going to throw back to the early days to ask: what are the hardest hip hop songs of all time? You asked, so we’re going to try and break it all down for you. So, let’s start with the songs that really made a huge impact last year. What were the top hip hop songs in 2021, and why did they make such a big splash?
Top hip hop songs of 2021
Winning a Grammy for best rap performance, Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar gave us Family Ties, an evolving and abstract tract with a simple, pounding beat and horn loop that gives way to something lush and orchestral about midway through. The track opens with a tension building horn hook that almost goes on too long, but then it’s resolved, and the whole groove changes. There’s something spartan and simple about the track, but it definitely cements the production team as a creative force. Cardi B was back in 2021 with Up a seeming celebration of the fact that the horrific times of 2020 were finally over, and true to form, Cardi is back with a sexualized power anthem about female empowerment full of catchy hooks and rhymes. Pandemic or not, women in hip hop have made huge strides in the last few years as they come out of the shadows to become superstars in their own right. While Up might not have garnered as much attention as 2020’s WAP, it’s another solid entry from Cardi B and one of the top hip hop songs of 2021. Coming from out of nowhere to become one of this year’s biggest festival headliners, Doja Cat turned in more hooks than you can count in 2021 but Get Into It (Yuh) will probably stand out for most people as the song they simply cannot get out of their heads. It’s partly because the song is one big, endless hook that straddles the line between rap and pop, but the staccato vocals that gain more and more momentum keep this track from getting old before it’s over. Sometimes it’s fun to see producers throw everything at the wall and overwhelm the listeners ears, but other times a track works better when the focus is narrower but building the whole time.
Rap Battle: Who would win in a rap battle, Lil’ Baby or Eminem?
Let’s take a break from the list for a minute for a quick tangent. Our readers want to know who would win in a rap battle, Lil’ Baby or Eminem? Both of these MCs are blessed with the speed, but this really comes down to the new generation vs. the elders of hip hop. Can Em still flow the way he did back when he told us his story in Eight Mile? While Lil’ Baby has been featuring on almost every track that comes out these days, does he really have the chops to go up against a seasoned pro like Marshal Mathers? The key here is experience, and this is bigger than just how long you’ve been in the game. We’re not asking who the better rapper is. That’s for you to decide. We’re just asking which of these MCs would dominate in a battle. So, while it’s fun to see the kids finally overtake the grownups, this is one of those cases where age and experience really matter. See, a battle isn’t about who can produce the best, or even who can write the best. It’s about who can make that magic happen in the moment. This is where Eminem has ALWAYS been dominant. Every time some young gun thinks they can take down Em with speed, they always lose because Eminem has proven himself to be smarter than just about anyone in the game. It’s his ability to think in the moment and come up with devastating burns that just allow him to keep flowing. Maybe this can be learned with practice, but Eminem has been showing off his improv skills since he was just a young punk himself in Detroit. We’re also going to go with Eminem on this one because he has been back with a vengeance lately, and his energy has been on full display. We got to see him mix it up at the Super Bowl halftime show, and after all these years, he hasn’t lost a step. While Lil’ Baby might be an up and comer to watch, we’re going to have to hand this to the elder statesman. Eminem wins.
Back to the top hip hop songs 2021
Clocking in at just two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, Earl Sweatshirt’s 2010 is a perfectly encapsulated, trippy gem that flows like a single stream of consciousness thought that never seems to meander too far from its original hook. The track, like its official music video, feels like a long hit from a never ending spliff, and there’s something satisfyingly simple about it. The production is likewise simple, and that’s why the track works so well. A panning arpeggiated trill moves and swirls as Sweatshirt seems to become less and less coherent as the song goes on, but luckily, they didn’t try to drag it out any longer than necessary. The result is a dreamy and unbloated track that feels lighter than air (or pot smoke.)
Because of the recent migrant crisis at the border and the news of more tragedy in Haiti, we got more information about the Haitian diaspora in 2021, and rising out of this is a pitch perfect record from Haitian-born rapper and producer Mach-Hommy. His 2021 track Kriminel from the critically acclaimed album Pray for Haiti possesses a complex simplicity that adds a lot of gravity to a song that clocks in at less than three minutes. Starting with the production, there is something undeniably vintage sounding about the instrumentation and the production. All of the instruments are hard panned left and right, and there is a deliberateness to every note. The dominant sound comes from a staticky bass line that flows constantly on the left side. The bass is smoothed out by a simple Hammond organ line, and a very occasional flourish of clean electric guitar. From the right speaker we get a stripped-down snare drum that sits perfectly in the mix. Mach-Hommy’s voice sits in the middle of the mix but as his voice switches between English and French Creole, his vocal subtly shifts from the left to the right side of center. It’s a dreamy and hypnotic track that feels like it was pulled from a dark nightclub in the 1970s with a modern-day lyrical sensibility.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of only listening to mainstream hip hop because it’s just everywhere now, but we also set out to answer the question: What are some intelligent hip hop songs? First, we landed on Ritual by Navy Blue, another track that clocks in at less than three minutes. This trend of shorter tracks serves so many artists well because it leaves the listener craving more instead of bored, and this track is no different. The synth hook may or may not be sampled from the soundtrack of the film It Follows, but either way it adds an ominous horror movie feel to the track that just builds over time. In addition to this and a simple kick drum beat, we get another ominous synth track on the right side that echoes the intro to the Pink Floyd song Time from The Dark Side of the Moon. The lyrics feel very stream of consciousness, but there is a hypnotic quality that makes you feel as though you are sinking deeper and deeper into this track making it one of the top hip hop songs of 2021.
Rap Battle: Who’s better Lil’ Wayne or Jay-Z?
It’s another battle of a lil’ vs. a legend. Obviously, both of these MCs have earned themselves a place in the hip hop pantheon, but when it comes down to who is actually better, there is some disagreement. Really, what it all comes down to is what you prefer. Jay-Z has always been the more known quantity here. His imperfections are his trademarks, and his empire is unquestionable. On the other hand, Lil’ Wayne is more of an experimenter. While there are certainly no plans for a rap battle between these two any time soon, Twitter has spent a lot of time weighing in on who they think would win. Some users tend to think Jay would dominate because of his more assertive style, but others point to the fact that Wayne is a faster rapper, and that often wins the day when it comes to battles. When it comes to record sales and net worth, Jay-Z is going to come out on top, but when it comes to a face to face battle, the jury seems to be out. So, for the question: Who’s better, Lil’ Wayne or Jay-Z? We’re going to say that it’s a draw.
Back to the top hip hop songs 2021
There’s something truly expansive sounding about Playboi Carti’s track Slay3r, but at the same time is also feels quite contained and focused. The production and the vocals are purposefully incongruous, and again we have loops and samples that sound like they could be pulled from a mid-80s Tangerine Dream song. The vocals, on the other hand, sit squarely in the center of the mix with a healthy dose of compression to give it an extra-restrained feeling that pushes the song along and balances out the more ambient feel of the rest of the track. This is one of those track you could listen to on repeat and never even know it.
Tyler, the Creator is headlining festivals this summer and for good reason. His 2021 track Lumerjack includes the line: “It’s different! It’s really different!” And at only one minute eighteen seconds, this track really is different. First, there’s the fact that Tyler is able to cram all of the elements of a classic hip hop track into just over a minute, but then there’s the production that pounds relentlessly. The main beat is courtesy of a highly compressed kick drum that is pushed to the point of clipping, but there’s also an interesting elegance to the beginning of the track that feels light and airy before the beat kicks in. Tyler has always been an easy answer to the question: what are some intelligent hip hop songs, but his new material keeps pushing the boundaries of how the music is made and how it is presented. This concise track just begs to be played over and over again, which in the age of streaming royalties is probably a smart business move.
Before we go: What are the hardest hip hop songs of all time?
We’ve highlighted some of the top hip hop songs 2021—some you may have heard, and some may be new to you, but we also wanted to take a little trip back in time to answer the question: what are the hardest hip hop songs of all time? In order to do this though, we need to go back to a time when hip how wasn’t yet a mainstream music genre, and the east coast/west coast feud was in full swing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip hop was seen as a dangerous art form that had strong ties to gangs and violent crime. This was echoed in the tracks by N.W.A and Public Enemy, and at the time, they were recording songs that were seriously freaking people out. You can’t talk about hard hip hop songs without starting with N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton which was a huge wakeup call for the hip hop world when its sales took off. The song, and its accompanying video which was banned from MTV asserts hip hop artists as angry and in direct opposition to the police. The video for Compton explicitly uses imagery of the LAPD and Ice Cube is directly addressing the violence and oppression that many people experienced in South Central Los Angeles. This was the same sentiment being shared in housing projects in New York by east coast rappers. Ice Cube and Dr. DRE would return with one of the hardest songs of all time with Natural Born Killaz. The video for the song features a sequence at the beginning that rivals a Hollywood cop movie of the era before turning into an anthem about how hard Cube and DRE really are. While their reputations may have softened since they became headphone moguls and family film stars, the track is a classic example of the kind of song that would become one of the most influential tracks in the gangsta rap genre. Other honorable mentions in this category go to Onyx’s Slam, which has become a classic. And who can forget the raw power of Ice T’s Cop Killer from the highly controversial record Body Count? These tracks set the stage for what hip hop would become as the 90s wore on, but they didn’t serve as the inspiration for everything and everyone. While these OG tracks are still considered classics, the genre of hip hop has become wider and wider, and it has become much more inclusive.
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