This year felt like a changing of the guard in rap. While many bigger artists released disappointing albums or stayed quiet, the smaller ones stepped up. Promising newcomers became fixtures. Fixtures became stars. Stars became icons and mentors to a new generation that will surely push the genre’s ever-evolving sound even further. There’s no telling where rap will go next, but the songs below might offer some clues.
Our picks for the best rap songs of the year are listed alphabetically and include several tracks that also appear in our Best Songs of 2021 list. Listen to selections from this list on our Spotify and Apple Music playlists, and check out all of Pitchfork’s 2021 wrap-up coverage here.
Armand Hammer and the Alchemist: “Stonefruit”
NYC rappers Elucid and billy woods have been making uncompromising music together as Armand Hammer since 2013, but this year’s collab with veteran producer the Alchemist, Haram, finds them at a rarified new level. The simple production on album closer “Stonefruit” centers a siren synth that sits just behind a beat propelled by triumphant drumrolls and two repeating arpeggios. ELUCID matches the production with a gruff verse about love and its pitfalls, and billy woods follows from the opposite angle, gliding through thorny rhyme schemes (regalia, bougainvillea, marginalia) before zeroing in on the image of a woman who conquers and cannibalizes his body. If Armand Hammer’s brutal realism usually beats the listener into submission, “Stonefruit” is a fantastical balm for our wounds. –Raphael Helfand
Azealia Banks: “Fuck Him All Night”
Like the bimbo, the bitch is a classic archetype. Half self-styled genius, half-warrior, the bitch feeds cannilly on the tender meat of respectability politics, refuses to accept an L, and embraces hostility on a level so fundamental it might be cellular. Banks is a bitch with stamina. “Fuck Him All Night” is her and producer Galcher Lustwerk’s spare take on booty house: a horny, repetitive, Chicago-indebted genre of dance music that pickles her spirit like it’s in a vat of vinegar. It’s neither her best track nor her worst, but the vim is—as promised—carnivorous, dramatic, stabby. The single’s cover has her nails splayed across her crotch in denim, spelling out the name of a fading rival (K-A-N-Y-E, right hand; ★-W-E-S-T, left) against lacquer the color of a perfect bruise. –Mina Tavakoli
Baby Keem: “family ties” [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
“Family Ties” is IMAX rap—a multi-suite affair that opens with a horn fanfare and proceeds to cast a hungry upstart against his rejuvenated mentor, both eager to steal scenes. Its event status is heightened even further because this is the first major song to feature Kendrick Lamar in years. But first up is his cousin Baby Keem, just 20 years old at the time of the single’s release and so excitable at the start of his verse he can hardly finish his words. Keem’s elation quickly morphs into confidence as he lets off a series of playful taunts: “The girl of your dreams to me is a fan/I netted 10 million and did a lil’ dance.” Then there’s Kendrick, who tidily addresses social unrest and a pandemic in just a few lines, reminding Keem, the Pulitzer committee, and the rest of the world that he still sits patiently at the pinnacle—a taste of fury to come. –Matthew Strauss