Like every year, 2021 was an excellent year for rap music, with so many great albums coming from all across the board. From the poppiest pop-rap to the most experimental interpretations of hip hop, from time-tested '90s revivalism to exhilarating innovation, from rap albums that veer towards vintage soul to rap albums that veer towards black metal, from the West Coast to the South to the Midwest to the East Coast to the UK, there were so many different types of rap albums released this year and every variety we just named shows up on our list of the 30 best rap albums of 2021. As one of the most prolific genres of music in the world right now, 30 (plus 15 honorable mentions) is a very small sample size and there were definitely some heavy hitters we had to leave off. If your favorite rap album of the year didn't make our list, leave it in the comments. Maybe we just haven't heard it yet.

Read on for the list...

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    30

    Aesop Rock x Blockhead - Garbology

    Rhymesayers

    Aesop Rock has remained prolific for his entire 20+ year career, but he hasn't put out an album with production from frequent collaborator Blockhead since 2007's None Shall Pass, and their chemistry is a big part of what made Aesop's 2000s albums so classic. That ended this year with Garbology, the first Aesop Rock album produced entirely by Blockhead, and one of his best post-2000s releases yet. They feed off each other in the same natural, thrilling way that they did 20 years ago, but Garbology isn't a return to form. It's as forward-thinking and futuristic today as classics like Labor Days were back then.

    Pick it up on vinyl along with other recent color vinyl Aesop Rock reissues.

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    29

    Benny the Butcher - The Plugs I Met 2 / Pyrex Picasso

    Black Soprano Family

    Last year, Benny the Butcher released his most polished project yet with Burden of Proof. And this year, it was revealed that, around the same time he recorded that album with Hit-Boy in California, he recorded The Plugs I Met 2 with Harry Fraud in Brooklyn. It's the sequel to 2019's The Plugs I Met, which remains one of the best Griselda-affiliated releases, and it's cut from the same raw cloth as the first one. Harry Fraud incorporates more of a modern production style than the producers on Plugs 1 did, but he still largely provides a dark, head-nod-inducing backdrop that recalls the glory days of mid '90s New York boom bap, and Benny's bars are sharp enough to rival the greats of that era. He's joined by appearances from Fat Joe, 2 Chainz, French Montana, Jim Jones, and more, and as he did on the first Plugs, Benny brings out the most menacing side of all of his guests. Later in 2021, Benny released the quick-and-dirty Pyrex Picasso EP, and it's even more fired-up. It may be brief, but it's some of his best stuff yet.

    Pick up the 'Plugs I Met 2' on vinyl and/or get it as part of a vinyl bundle with Nas, DMX and Czarface, and other Benny LPs too.

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    28

    Nappy Nina & JWords - Double Down

    LucidHaus

    New Jersey producer JWords has a knack for hypnotic, psychedelic instrumentals, Brooklyn rapper Nappy Nina has a subtle, conversational delivery that's quiet yet impactful, and together, they've crafted one of the most unique rap records of 2021. Joined by Stas THEE Boss (ex-THEESatisfaction), Maassai, ANYANWU KG, and co-production on one song by KeiyaA, the duo have made a record that defies easy categorization and is over way too soon. (It's 17 minutes long.) JWords' production incorporates dance beats and experimental electronics, while Nina looks inwards, lamenting about the fact that her therapist won't text her back, or reminiscing about being up at 4 AM, phoning friends to battle loneliness. It feels like a time capsule of the 2020 lockdown that it was recorded during, and even listening to it now that places have opened back up and human contact is attainable, it's no less impactful.

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    27

    Ka - A Martyr's Reward

    Iron Works

    A Martyr's Reward continues former Natural Elements member Ka's prolific, consistently-rewarding late-career resurgence, and it's also one of his most personal albums yet. Largely self-produced, except for one song with Preservation and one with Navy Blue (who provides the album's only guest verse), A Martyr's Reward sounds like the rap album equivalent of a diary, as Ka reflects on the violence, poverty, and systemic injustice that plagued his youth. Even as it spends the bulk of its time looking inward, A Martyr's Reward's stories resonate on a much grander scale.

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    Pooh Shiesty - Shiesty Season

    The New 1017/Atlantic

    Pooh Shiesty found himself at the forefront of the new class of rappers signed to Gucci Mane's New 1017 label by late 2020, and with this year's Shiesty Season, he was catapulted into the rap mainstream at large. The album is loaded with some of the year's most enduring melodic trap songs -- "Back in Blood," "Guard Up," "Neighbors," "Twerksum" -- and Pooh proves not just to be a hitmaker, but also a vivid lyricist and a magnetic performer, with a Southern drawl and trademark ad-libs that feel like a grand introduction whenever he hops on a track.

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    25

    Tha God Fahim & Your Old Droog - Tha Wolf on Wall St

    Monogoloid Banks

    Tha God Fahim and Your Old Droog each released multiple projects this year, and they released two together, and the best one was the short-but-sweet Tha Wolf On Wall St. It's warm, jazzy, boom bap-inspired rap music, and if you needed a little comforting '90s hip hop nostalgia in your life this year, Tha Wolf on Wall St proved to be one of the most effective examples of it. Aided by Mach-Hommy on two of its eight songs, these guys aren't really doing anything you couldn't hear in 1996, but they're doing it so well that it feels like discovering the sounds of that era all over again.

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    24

    Conway the Machine - La Maquina & If It Bleeds...

    Griselda/Drumwork/EMPIRE & Big Ghost Ltd

    We've been highly anticipating Conway the Machine's Shady Records debut God Don't Make Mistakes since 2020, and though Conway has now pushed its release to 2022, he did put out two very solid projects in 2021. First he released If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed, his second collaboration with producer Big Ghost Ltd (who also helmed 2020's No One Mourns The Wicked), and then he put out La Maquina, which came out on Griselda Records and featured some of the label's usual producers (Alchemist, Daringer, JR Swift, etc) and a song with his Griselda groupmates Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher, as well as appearances by 2 Chainz, J.I.D, Ludacris, and more. Big Ghost's production makes If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed one of Conway's most ominous projects, while La Maquina has more of the soul/jazz-derived Griselda sound, and both remind you that Conway is one of the sharpest rappers in the world right now. Even with how prolific he's been lately, he's still got a seemingly endless arsenal of knockout punchlines, still sounds as hungry as ever.

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    23

    ZelooperZ - Van Goghs Left Ear

    Bruiser Brigade

    Danny Brown's Bruiser Brigade label released an onslaught of great albums this year, and the most strangely addictive one came from ZelooperZ. The Detroit weirdo bounces between styles and flows over production that's just as fickle and eccentric, and even when the album threatens to be too maximalist or too grating, it keeps you coming back for more.

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    EST Gee - Bigger Than Life or Death

    CMG/Interscope

    Even as EST Gee gets boosts from giants like Yo Gotti, Lil Baby, Future, and Jack Harlow, the Louisville street-rapper remains true to his cold, hard roots, as evidenced throughout the entirety of Bigger Than Life or Death, one of 2021's most remarkable breakthroughs. He's not afraid to incorporate the kinds of moments that might get him played on the radio, but he does it without watering down his gritty storytelling and sneered delivery. EST Gee has gradually morphed into one of hip hop's most compelling new voices, and he's done it by continuing to be himself.

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    21

    Rome Streetz & DJ Muggs - Death & The Magician

    Soul Assassins

    Rome Streetz is a rising Brooklyn rapper who put out a whopping four projects in 2021, and his best one was entirely produced by DJ Muggs, the Cypress Hill member who continues to re-cement himself as a central figure in rap's underground. Following in the footsteps of artists like Roc Marciano and Griselda, Rome Streetz reshapes the sounds of '90s New York rap in exciting ways, and Muggs' eerie post-boom bap production fits perfectly with Rome's vicious bars. This corner of rap music has felt more crowded lately than it has in a while, but Rome Streetz knows just how to rise above the competition. 2021 was his best year yet, and by the looks of things, his future seems bright.

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    Lil Nas X - Montero

    Columbia

    At this point, it's probably more accurate to call Lil Nas X a pop singer than a rapper, but whatever genre you call it, Montero is one of the year's biggest triumphs and biggest surprises. Lil Nas X seemed destined to go down as a one hit wonder after following his viral chart-topper "Old Town Road" with the disappointing 7 EP, but Montero signified a fresh start. Working almost entirely with production duo Take A Daytrip, Lil Nas X came up with a sound that exists somewhere between pop and rap, is absurdly catchy, and doesn't really sound like anybody else in the world. Sometimes the album acknowledges the critics who doubted him ("One of Me"), but mostly it just laughs in the faces of those critics with an onslaught of some of the year's most effortlessly catchy songs.

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    19

    Backxwash - I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses

    Ugly Hag

    Metal, noise, and industrial inform I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses just as much as rap does, but you'd never mistake this for "rap rock" -- at least not in the way that genre was defined during its popular '90s/early 2000s era. This is dark, eerie music that feels informed by real anger and real pain. Backxwash's delivery isn't a put-on; when she screams, it sounds like it's because she's been pushed to the brink of emotional collapse. And as much as this album welcomes sounds from outside of hip hop, make no mistake -- this is a rap album. Backxwash's blood-curdling screams flirt with black metal, but when she spits venom, she'll leave your favorite MC shaking in their shoes.

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    18

    Boldy James & The Alchemist - Bo Jackson

    self-released

    Boldy James and The Alchemist's first collaborative project was 2013's underrated My 1st Chemistry Set, but since 2019, the pair have released at least one project per year and they've become one of modern rap music's most beloved duos. Following 2019's Boldface EP and 2020's widely acclaimed The Price of Tea In China, Boldy and The Alchemist returned this year with Bo Jackson (and its short companion release Super Tecmo Bo), which scratches the same appealing itch as its predecessors, with Boldy's subtle-yet-deadly delivery falling perfectly into the pocket of Alchemist's psychedelic, jazzy production. Likeminded rappers Earl Sweatshirt, Roc Marciano, Benny the Butcher, Freddie Gibbs, Curren$y, and Stove God Cooks all show up, and it comes as no surprise that they all fit right in. This dark, gritty corner of the post-boom bap world continues to grow, and this album alone showcases so much of it.

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    17

    R.A.P. Ferreira - Bob's Son & The Light Emitting Diamond...

    Ruby Yacht

    R.A.P. Ferreira (formerly known as milo, sometimes also known as scallops hotel) continues to be one of the most unique and consistently rewarding rappers in the rap underground, and this year he released two new albums (one on New Year's Day, one on Black Friday), both of which are great, and both of which find him continuing to carve out his own path, regardless of trends. Bob's Son leans a bit more hazy and experimental, while The Light Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures feels a bit more "traditional" in comparison, but both find R.A.P. Ferreira doing what he does best: delivering surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness raps over psychedelic production, and slowly drawing you in to his world.

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    16

    Morray - Street Sermons

    Pick Six/Interscope

    The soul-trap wave continues to grow, and the genre birthed an instant classic debut this year with Morray's Street Sermons. The North Carolina rapper emerged in late 2020 with the addictive single "Quicksand," and less than a year later he was featured on a J. Cole album. In between, he put out Street Sermons, featuring "Quicksand" and 12 other songs that use the same formula to great effect. If it feels more like a greatest hits than a debut album, it's partially because five of the tracks did come out as singles, but even the non-singles feel as irresistible as Morray's biggest hit. And even as one of the year's most purely catchy rap albums, Street Sermons never veers into bubblegum territory. These songs go down like sugar, but they're steeped in sadness and pain.

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    The Alchemist - This Thing of Ours Vols. 1 & 2

    ALC

    In addition to producing entire albums for some of the best rappers around, The Alchemist also puts out great records of his own, and this year he put out two EPs that, when taken as a whole, rival any of the year's finest rap albums. The EPs feature a who's who of the current underground rap scene -- with Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, Danny Brown & Bruiser Brigade, MIKE, MAVI, Boldy James, Zelooperz, Pink Siifu, Maxo, and Navy Blue -- and they really feel like one cohesive project, not a various artists compilation. All of these rappers have different styles, but they also all know how to ride a warm, jazzy Alchemist beat, and they made sure to keep their bars perfectly suited for the Alchemist universe. The Alchemist has been producing since the early '90s and his style is clearly still informed by the boom bap era, but records like This Thing of Ours remind you that he is always moving forward.

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    14

    Injury Reserve - By the Time I Get to Phoenix

    self-released

    By the Time I Get to Phoenix is the last Injury Reserve album to feature Stepa J. Groggs, who tragically passed away as the album was nearing completion, and it's bittersweet because it proves the trio were only just getting started. Leaps and bounds more experimental than the group's 2019 self-titled debut album, Phoenix is an art-rap journey through glitch, noise, psychedelic R&B, and more, with only a few moments that pass for "traditional" rap music. It sounds like the future that Kanye imagined with Yeezus and then quickly turned away from, but comparing it to someone else does a disservice to how shockingly unique this album is. Injury Reserve set out to "make some weird shit," and they ended up creating a universe.

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    13

    Maassai - With the Shifts

    Shiny Records

    Brooklyn's noisy, lo-fi, psychedelic rap underground has been a fertile scene for years, and one of the scene's brightest newer voices is Maassai, whose With the Shifts is her best release yet. Like many of her peers, she favors production that sounds like it's playing off an old, dusty, warped jazz record, but her words are crystal clear. She has a poetic delivery with inventive, ever-changing rhyme schemes and rhythms, and her message is never obscured by flowery language or overuse of metaphors. Whether Maassai is talking about the corrupt prison system, performative activism, or personal trauma, she can shake you to your core.

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    Flee Lord - Rammellzee (w/ DJ Muggs) / Delgado (w/ Roc...)

    Soul Assassins / LordMobb

    Flee Lord released an album a month in 2020, which is too much music in one year for even some of the biggest rap fans to digest, but the year-long project was full of breathtaking moments and at least one thing was clear: Flee is at its best when he works with a sole producer for an entire album. Some of last year's best were Me and My Flowers with Buckwild and The People's Champ with Pete Rock, and this year he slowed down, carefully selecting two titanic producers to make albums with: DJ Muggs and Roc Marciano. Muggs also had a banner year, having produced a handful of albums that prove the Cypress Hill member is still on the cutting edge of new rap music, and Rammellzee was his best. He gifts Flee Lord with some of the most lush production that Flee has ever rapped over, and Flee's gravelly bars hit like cracks in Muggs' glass. Flee's got an increasingly distinct voice, one that obviously owes itself to '90s New York rappers but stands out even amongst the best of them. On Delgado, Flee gets a more sinister soundscape from Roc Marciano, and his bars fit perfectly in the pocket on that one as well.

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    11

    Mach-Hommy - Pray for Haiti

    Griselda

    In just a few years, Newark rapper Mach-Hommy has released more music than most people can keep track of, most of it very good, and some of it only available for ridiculous amounts of money on his website. But this year, he teamed up with Westside Gunn's Griselda Records for one of his most widely-distributed releases yet, Pray for Haiti (which Gunn also executive produced and appears on), and Pray for Haiti was just as easy to enjoy as it was to stream legally. With Westside Gunn involved (again), Pray for Haiti is littered with pieces of the trademark Griselda sound, but it's still distinctly a Mach-Hommy album, with Mach's Haitian heritage filtered through his knack for reshaping the sounds of classic East Coast rap.

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    10

    Armand Hammer & The Alchemist - Haram

    Backwoodz Studioz

    When this collaboration was first announced, Armand Hammer (aka billy woods and ELUCID) and The Alchemist seemed like a match made in underground rap heaven, and Haram proved to be every bit as exciting in execution as it was on paper. As ever, billy woods and ELUCID's lyrics are dense, deep, and not easy to penetrate, but Alchemist's warm, jazz-informed production makes things just a little more welcoming. Still, aside from easier entry points like an Earl Sweatshirt guest verse and the melodic album closer "Stonefruit," Haram remains a dark, demanding album. It doesn't aim to please listeners; it aims to challenge them.

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    Doja Cat - Planet Her

    Kemosabe/RCA

    It was only nine years ago that Nicki Minaj found herself at the center of a hip hop controversy because she put out a pop song, but it feels like ancient history because nothing like that could ever happen today. Living proof of this point is Doja Cat, whose Planet Her is one of the year's best pop albums, and it's also home to some of the year's most inventive rapping. Doja Cat blends singing and rapping so seamlessly to the point where even some of her rap songs don't feel like "rap songs," but that's only because she's fearlessly reinventing the form, rather than sticking to tradition. Like Nicki before her, Doja Cat has more flows on a single song than some rappers do on an entire album, and she's cemented herself as one of the most charismatic rapper/singers in the game. Throughout Planet Her, it feels like Doja Cat is playing nine characters at once, and coming out with some of the year's catchiest songs in the process.

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    8

    Dave - We're All Alone In This Together

    Neighbourhood

    UK rapper Dave is the kind of storyteller that leaves you hanging on his every word. Whether he's rapping introspectively about his own personal struggles, or looking outwards at the blatant racism that continues to infect society worldwide, Dave makes every syllable sound heavy and full of purpose. On his hour-long second album We're All Alone in This Together, he has even more to say than he did on his instant classic 2019 debut Psychodrama, and the deeper you dive into this album, the more gripping it sounds. Aided by James Blake, Stormzy, Wizkid, Snoh Aalegra, Jae5, a member of Mount Kimbie, and more, the album seamlessly incorporates bits of Afrobeats, R&B, soul, forward-thinking electronic music, and more, making for an album that's as musically dazzling as it is lyrically powerful. Its sequencing feels cinematic, and when you hit the two long songs near the end (the 8-minute "Both Sides of a Smile" and the 10-minute "Heart Attack"), you can feel your blood rushing the way it does during the climax of an award-winning drama.

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    Vince Staples - Vince Staples

    Motown/Blacksmith

    Vince Staples has never made the same album twice, and his diverse catalog already includes everything from a sweeping concept album to festival-sized bangers, but for his new self-titled album, he went for something much more intimate. Closer to an audio diary than a traditional rap album, Vince Staples rarely relies on hooks or refrains and has only guest, and it sounds more like Vince capturing his thoughts alone with a tape recorder, rather than writing songs for Coachella crowds to sing along to. Frequent collaborator Kenny Beats produced or co-produced every song, and Kenny proves to be just as versatile as Vince. Here, he provides Vince with some of the most minimal production of his career, making things just kinetic enough so you can still nod your head when you listen to Vince vent. It may not be as immediately accessible as Vince's other albums, but it endures as some of his most uniquely compelling work.

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    Wiki - Half God

    Wikset Enterprise

    After making a grand statement with 2017's XL-released No Mountains In Manhattan, Wiki parted ways with his big record label and took a more insular approach on his subsequent projects, but with his Navy Blue-produced Half God, he seems to have finally found a comfortable middle ground between his most ambitious aspirations and his penchant for the underground. Like on NMIM, the main character of Half God is New York City. Patrick Morales, the person behind Wiki, shows up a lot too, but his own experiences are used as symbolism for life in the city at large. Half God feels like a day in the life of a New Yorker, from contemplating life on the roof of your apartment to glaring at gentrification. The artwork for No Mountains In Manhattan was a painting of NYC, one as vivid and full of wide-eyed admiration as Wiki's songs themselves. In contrast, Half God feels wiser and more reflective, like the work of an artist looking back at that same painting years later and seeing it in a new light. It's only been four years since that album, but Half God reminds you how quickly New York City, and its inhabitants, are always changing.

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    Polo G - Hall of Fame

    Columbia

    Polo G took Chicago drill to the top of the charts with "Rapstar," and with Hall of Fame -- featuring that song and 19 others -- he proved he could make the song's winning formula last for the length of an entire LP. "Rapstar" is Hall of Fame's biggest hit, but it never overshadows the album, which offers up a slew of equally infectious songs. From guitar ballads like "Black Hearted" to hardened street anthems like "GNF (OKOKOK)," Polo G offers up an array of different sounds and emotions throughout the album, and even on its most boastful tracks, there's an overarching sense of melancholy. Hall of Fame looks celebratory on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you'll find that one of the year's most addictive albums is also one of the most tragic.

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    Moor Mother - Black Encyclopedia Of The Air

    ANTI-

    Moor Mother isn't just a rapper -- she also deals in jazz, spoken word, avant-garde, and more -- but with Black Encyclopedia Of The Air, she's made her most rap-centric, and most accessible, solo album to date. It's still a far more experimental album than what the average person might consider rap -- the closest comparison I can think of is Shabazz Palaces, but even that doesn't quite nail it -- but from the beats to Moor Mother's cadences, this is a rap album. And even if it's more easily digestible than just about anything else Moor Mother's ever released, she hasn't toned down her message one bit. The album is steeped in the centuries of American oppression, but it's more than a history lesson; its sights are set on paving the way for a better future.

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    Maxo Kream - Weight of the World

    RCA

    Since his early mixtapes, Maxo Kream has shown off an ability to feed the listener in-depth storytelling with a spoonful of melodic sugar, and on Weight of the World, his stories have only gotten more intense and his hooks have only gotten catchier. Throughout the album's 16 songs, Maxo touches on the deaths of his cousin and brother, his grandmother being hospitalized with COVID, and other family traumas, and he does so while offering up some of the most appealing, self-assured rap music of the year. He's aided by standout appearances by Freddie Gibbs, A$AP Rocky, fast-rising Houston rapper Monaleo, and Tyler, the Creator (who produces and raps on major standout "Big Persona," a track as worthy as anything on Tyler's own 2021 album), making for the most effective cast of guests assembled for any Maxo Kream album. They add star power, but they never distract from the album's main draw: the inner workings of the mind of Maxo Kream.

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    Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

    Age 101

    Having released one of the best albums of 2019, some may have wondered how Little Simz would follow up GREY Area. Clearly, she was not one of those, and now that album feels like just an appetizer for this. Even if you didn't look at Sometimes I Might Be Introvert's 65-minute runtime or 19-song tracklist, it only takes about 10 seconds of the title track / opening cut to realize the scope, ambition, confidence and sheer talent at play here. Working once again with producer and SAULT svengali Inflo (as well as regular collaborator Cleo Sol and Obongjayar), this isn't an album, it's a globe-trotting epic full of sweep and swagger, orchestrated battle royales, intimate character moments, showstopping choreographed set-pieces and joyous bacchanals. Little Simz is writer, director and star, is in full control, never lacks focus, has incredible flow, and sticks the landing. And unlike some works of this scale, it's over too soon. As for how she'll follow this one up, it's not for us to worry, only for us to wait. [Bill Pearis]

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    Tyler, the Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost

    Columbia

    After almost entirely abandoning rap on 2019's great IGOR, Tyler, the Creator got back in touch with rapping with a few key guest verses in 2020 and then 2021 saw the release of his most straight-up rap album in years. Call Me If You Get Lost features DJ Drama shouting over most of the tracks, hearkening back to Drama's classic Gansta Grillz mixtape series, but Call Me If You Get Lost isn't exactly a return to a more traditional sound. It's got some of the best and most innovative production work of any album released in any genre this year. Tyler's crafted a straight-up rap album that doesn't sound like any other artist's definition of a straight-up rap album. He remains in a world of his own.

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