2020 was a chaotic year and thankfully 2021 has arrived. While the start of the year has been relatively quiet musically, there are a few albums that stood out from the rest. This month, fans received new music from veterans Jim Jones & Harry Fraud and Devin The Dude as well as newcomers Pooh Shiesty and Shordie Shordie.
DX will be narrowing down the endless amount of music released during the course of a year to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects. Also be sure to check out our other lists:
This list includes albums released between December 2, 2020 and February 28, 2021
The Top Hip Hop Albums Of 2021 (December – February)
Contributing writers: Trent Clark, Kyle Eustice, Josh Svetz, Dana Scott, Brandon Caldwell, David Brake, Kenan Draughorne, Devon Jefferson, Michael Saponara & Jeremy Hecht.
Shiesty Season – Pooh Shiesty
Since signing to Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records imprint, Pooh Shiesty has been one of rap’s hottest prospects. “Back In Blood” with Lil Durk proved the hype was warranted. We’ve now entered Shiesty Season, as the Memphis rapper’s debut project finally hit the streets. Over the course of the 17 tracks, the effortless, ice-cold bars and hooks are so catchy they’ll stick with the listener for weeks.
The album is admittedly front-loaded with the most poignant songs such as “Shiesty Season Intro,” “Guard Up” and the BIG30-assisted “Neighbors” appearing near the start. But the quality present in the diverse range of songs far outweighs the long listen. Pooh is playful in his wordplay but unafraid to put an opp in their place. He strays from trends, doesn’t sound much like his mentor nor does he even reflect the popular sounds of contemporary Memphis brought to fruition in recent years by artists such as NLE Choppa and Key Glock. His accent sounds like Tennessee, but he raps in a broader context, taking hints from Chicago, Atlanta and Memphis, blending them into his own signature sound.
The Truth Hurts – Drakeo The Ruler
The first independent rapper to land on HipHopDX’s Best Hip Hop Albums list back-to-back is none other than Stinc Team general Drakeo The Ruler. Following his post-incarceration project We Know The Truth (Deluxe), Drakeo upped the ante yet again and pulled out all the stops for The Truth Hurts album. Amplified by the hype of Drake’s assist on the radio-ready banger “Talk To Me,” the Los Angeles native maintains control of the torrential wave of buzz throughout the 17-tracks that include features from Icewear Vezzo, Pressa, Snap Dogg and more.
And even with the added star power his guest features yield, Drakeo still manages to elevate his Stinc team brethren on tracks like “Dawn Toliver” featuring Cactus Jack rapper Don Toliver and recently deceased rapper Ketchy the Great.
Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album – Various Artists
With polarizing collaborations such as Nipsey Hussle’s posthumous connection with JAY-Z on “What It Feels Like” and the homage-paying link up between reigning 2020 DX Hip Hop Awards Producer Of The Year champion Hit-Boy and Hip Hop vet Nas via “EPMD,” Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired By Album delivers a staggering blow of pure lyricism and superb production — all unified under the premise of portraying the story of Black liberation, lead by one of the most profound Civil Rights leaders of all time.
Comprised of an elite and diverse cast such as A$AP Rocky, Pooh Shiesty, Polo G, G Herbo, Smino, Dom Kennedy and more, this project represents an amplified sonic celebration of Black History Month across all 22-tracks.
The Fraud Department – Jim Jones & Harry Fraud
Diplomats capo Jim Jones has kept his index and middle fingers on the pulse of club goers, conscious and hardcore gangsta rap fans rooted in Hip Hop traditionalism on his eighth studio album The Fraud Department, exclusively produced by Harry Fraud. Jones and the Surf School label honcho showcase their Brooklyn-to-Harlem synergy across a wide range of 1970s soul sample-heavy production with punchy drums and New York City trap motifs.
Guest appearances such as Dave East, French Montana and Maino give solid performances on the 11-track album, along with Jones’s reflective thoughts, accessible and clever wordplay and slightly offbeat cadences. The opening track of The Fraud Department titled “Laps Around The Sun” offers Jones’s politically charged Black Lives Matter-themed messaging, the lead single “Lose Lose” and “Say A Prayer” featuring Curren$y and Jay Worthy singing the hook keep the project’s replay value on high.
Soulful Distance – Devin The Dude
Devin The Dude is proof incredible consistency can keep one relevant as a rapper for as many years as one should decide to open the notebook and let the pen glide. With a career spanning over three decades, Houston’s stoner rap pioneer continues his run unchecked, even amid a pandemic. His new album, Social Distance, sees Devin ruminating over the world’s current circumstances, rap music and his matured view on love in his signature laid-back smooth style.
Over the course of 51 minutes, the 50-year-old everyman MC evokes the image of him sitting in the studio with a blunt in hand, sipping on some Moët as he catches people up on what’s been going on in the life of your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. Whether he’s slinging relationship advice on “A Good Woman” or life guidance alongside fellow southern legends Slim Thug and Scarface on “Live And Let Live,” Devin’s relaxed delivery reigns supreme. Eleven albums later, he’s still cooler than a freshly rolled swisher sweet.
Memory Lane – Shordie Shordie & Murda Beatz
As Shordie Shordie’s anthemic Trippie Redd-featuring rap-ballad “LOVE” remains suspended in air, his Murda Beatz-orchestrated Memory Lane project creeps in with substantial material to boost the “Bitchuary” rap star’s blinding lime light even more.
Seemingly utilizing the release to flex the perfections he’s added to his signature raspy, rapid-fire melodic flow since his 2020 >Music project, Captain Hook backs up his monster “Doctors” single with eardrum smashing hits such as “Same N-ggas” and fire bops such as “Networth.” Intact with 12 songs and music harkening painful invocations, as well as lavish get-money vibs, Memory Lane is repeat-ready.
Man On The Moon III: The Chosen — Kid Cudi
Twelve years after it began, Kid Cudi’s intergalactic saga has come to a close with Man On The Moon 3: The Chosen. On his latest, fans find the godfather of psychedelic rap in a better state than the previous two chapters of the trilogy. Previously, Cudder was a notoriously tortured soul, fighting battles with his demons, armed with hums and groovy rap melodies. But on The Chosen, Cudi seems more in control. His demons are still present, but he handles them with grace instead of despair.
With a familiar producer team from the previous MOTM albums consisting of Dot Da Genius, Plain Pat and Mike Dean, The Chosen is a cohesive extension of the Cleveland-born rapper’s previous work. There’s also some fresh blood and new collaborators, including Finneas from Billie Eilish fame, singer Phoebe Bridgers and producer duo Take A Daytrip. There’s some misses (Pop Smoke sounds wildly out of place on “Show Out”), but it’s overall an excellent end to one of rap’s most iconic storylines.
The Voice — Lil Durk
Nothing makes us happier than seeing Lil Durk succeed in a year where all the odds were stacked against him. He lost his dear friend and frequent collaborator in King Von last November and channeled that pain into The Voice, Durkio’s sixth studio album which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, marking the Chi-town rapper’s third Top 10 project.
One of the more melodic founders of Drill Rap, The Voice is packed full of effortless hooks and catchy melodies. “Stay Down” featuring 6LACK and Young Thug is one of the standout tracks from the project, a moody hit by three artists who work incredibly well together. But The Voice is truly a dedication to Von and Durk shines when memorializing his fallen friend on “Death Ain’t Easy” and other heartbreaking but stunning tracks.
That’s What They All Say — Jack Harlow
If anything, Jack Harlow’s debut album That’s What They All Say proves he’s worthy of the hype and chatter surrounding him. Following his Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping hit “What’s Poppin” remix featuring DaBaby, Lil Wayne and Tory Lanez, the December 2020 release remains steadfast in keeping up with Harlow’s feverish hit-making pace.
With deep cuts such as “Luv Is Dro” featuring the late R&B vocalist Static Major and fellow Kentucky native Bryson Tiller combined with viral hits such as “Tyler Herro” and “Way Out,” the album sounds as diverse as it is lyrically. The most convincing part of all is Harlow’s consistent prowess throughout That’s What They All Say — which is seemingly a master class on the execution of a multi-producer project as it’s laced with production from Scott Storch, Hit-Boy, Boi-1da, Harry Fraud and numerous others.
Proud Of Me Now — Sheff G
Since Canarsie-rapper Pop Smoke’s passing in February of 2019, Brooklyn Drill rap found itself in a precarious position. The roots were strong with Fivio Foreign, 22Gz, Sleepy Hallow and Sheff G, but there were vulturous newcomers aiming to make a quick buck off the hype Pop and the BK Drill founders had started. Artists such as CJ, Quelly Woo and other copycats have swarmed to the scene, scraping together what’s left. That’s why Proud Of Me Know, the latest from Sheff G, is so compelling. It’s a bite-sized and highly focused album that strays away from comparisons to the Big Woo and shows that Sheff has a big, booming voice of his own. The aggressive “No Negotiations” and more introspective “Mistakes” suggests that Sheff might be ready for the crown of the Five Boroughs.
Whole Lotta Red — Playboi Carti
Expectations for Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red were extraordinarily high. After endless delays and building anticipation, the Atlanta rapper released his third studio album on Christmas. Rap Twitter immediately went ablaze, with some calling WLR Carti’s best work and others slandering its very existence. But numbers don’t lie and when the project debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, much of the hate seemed to dissipate.
The record surely contains some problems: it’s mixed poorly, at times can sound unfinished — not to mention the out-of-place Kanye West verse on “Go2DaMoon.” But the high points far outweigh the album’s drawbacks. On Whole Lotta Red, fans find Carti in an entirely new world of beats, rapping over incredible production from Art Dealer, Maaly Raw, KP and Pi’erre Bourne. Fans find video game sounds, punk rock and filthy 808s around every turn. Carti makes quick work out of the diverse selection of beats, flying around the tracks chaotically but deeply impassioned. It might be unexpected, but Whole Lotta Red stands just as tall as Die Lit and Playboi Carti.
Song Of Sage: Post Panic! — Navy Blue
It would be easy to label L.A.-based rapper Navy Blue’s latest album Song Of Sage: Post Panic! an extension of Earl Sweatshirt — but that would entail overlooking the vast differences between the two artists. Where Earl leans towards fractured narratives and abstract expression, Navy Blue is more concerned with storytelling, and presenting chronology through a deeply impassioned and personal lens.
Navy Blue self-produced a handful of the orchestral beats on Song Of Sage. Though he also recruited rappers Maxo, billy woods and the legendary Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), Song Of Sage is primarily handled alone, a fitting approach given the intimate subject matter of personal history, self-identity and pride.
Music To Be Murdered By: Side B — Eminem
Say whatever you want about Eminem — the man pushes weight. Nearly a year after Music To Be Murdered By was first released, Em dropped Side B, a deluxe edition featuring 16 new tracks. In typical Slim Shady fashion, Side B arrived without barely any warning and featured new contributions from old friends, including Skylar Grey and Dr. Dre but also some new faces in the Eminem universe such as Ty Dolla $ign. The shock drop spread like wildfire, selling nearly 100,000 units in its opening week and helped to propel the album back to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Sound Ancestors — Madlib
It’s a rare treat when iconic and often reclusive producer Madlib shares new music. One of the undisputed greatest Hip Hop producers in history, Madlib’s 20-year-plus career has brought the world numerous classics. He has an unrivaled ability to sound wholly new and fresh on each project. He sounds leagues ahead of the times on Lootpack’s debut from 1999 and the same can still be said about Sound Ancestors, which dropped in the final days of January.
It’s a grab-bag of global sounds that’s reminiscent of early Hip Hop DJs. An intricate, plucked guitar on “Latino Negro” sounds as if he’s remixing Rodrigo y Gabriela live, while on “Road Of The Lonely Ones,” he flips a track from late 1960s Motown group The Ethics. One thing’s for certain — Madlib never disappoints.
OTHER FAVORITES FROM JANUARY 2021
- A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism – Pharoahe Monch
- Hereditary – 2nd Generation Wu
- Petestrumentals 3 – Pete Rock
- Between Da Protests – KRS-One
- From King To A God Deluxe – Conway The Machine
- Longway Sinatra 2 – Peewee Longway & Cassius Jay
- The Alpha Jerk – KEY! & Tony Seltzer
- Nightmare Vacation – Rico Nasty
- No Explanations – Kamaiyah
- Ain’t Gone Do It/Terms & Conditions – E-40 & Too $hort
- The Definition of Pain – J. Stone
- Song Of Sage: Post Panic!
OTHER FAVORITES FROM FEBRUARY 2021
- Tyron – Slowthai
- Another Day Another Dollar – Payroll Giovanni & Cardo
- If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed – Big Ghost LTD & Conway The Machine
- Collection Agency – Curren$y
- Duke Nukem– Duke Deuce
- Piñata (Deluxe) – Freddie Gibbs x Madlib