Andy wraps up 2021 with reviews of his five favourite projects from the year
After the pandemic rocked the music industry, with no live shows in 2020, there were high hopes for what 2021 would have in store. Many of the industry’s heavy hitters returned to the fore after hiatuses of varying length. A lot has changed in Adele’s life since she last released an album in 2015, not least the birth of her son and the breakdown of her marriage, and 30 is a typically candid look into her emotional state. Another industry giant, Drake, also returned with his long-awaited follow-up to 2018’s Scorpion; however the impact of Certified Lover Boy ultimately had little to do with the quality of the music and far more to do with his ongoing feud with Kanye West – the competition with Kanye West’s Donda proved to be the latest exchange of blows in this (now seemingly squashed) beef. As the industry continues to await the return of Kendrick Lamar and SZA following the 2017 releases of DAMN. and Ctrl respectively, their TDE labelmate, Isaiah Rashad, ended his own five-year hiatus with The House is Burning, an accomplished project which proved to be worth the wait.
With features from Drake, Travis Scott, Kid Cudi, Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, Big Sean, Future and more, Young Thug, Gunna and the whole YSL crew should be applauded for assembling half of hip-hop to craft a masterpiece in the Slime Language 2 collaborative album. Finally, Little Simz should also be applauded for repping for the UK with yet another impactful, artistic and creative effort in Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.
Without much further ado, let’s get into this year’s list…
5. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST | Tyler, The Creator
As his name suggests, Tyler, The Creator is a creative force to be reckoned with. Every album is an entirely different listening experience and his sixth album, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is no exception. Tyler’s artistic development throughout his career can be heard in the music and this latest effort is a far cry from the wacky, shocking and hilarious antics which characterised the horrorcore style of the early projects (such as Goblin and Wolf) from the controversial start to his career over a decade ago. On the first verse of ‘MASSA’, the seventh track on the album, Tyler acknowledges his public maturation, describing 2015’s Cherry Bomb as sounding “shifty” as a result. The smooth sound of 2017’s Flower Boy, his first album after growing from “that little boy y’all was introduced to”, saw Tyler portraying a sensitive, introspective character and discussing more mature themes, such as depression, loneliness and his sexuality. The Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album which ensued was the first time his music received any accolades and the mainstream acclaim only continued with 2019’s Grammy-winning IGOR, a genre-bending, self-produced extravaganza on which Tyler dons a blond bob to portray the devastated character of Igor as he pieces together a broken relationship. On CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, Tyler introduces yet another character, this time portraying Tyler Baudelaire, a representation of his newfound worldliness, to which he refers throughout the project. Stylistically, the album is a return to rap following Tyler’s foray into pop with IGOR. Tyler’s spitting on the album serves as a reminder that he is as lyrically deft as anyone right now, with his skills particularly on display on the penultimate track, ‘WILSHIRE’, an epic nine-minute stream-of-consciousness which was allegedly a freestyle recorded in one take. DJ Drama’s hosting of the record brings a classic hip-hop feel to the album and also brings full circle a moment in 2010 in which Tyler tweeted about wanting to make a Gangsta Grillz mixtape. With this album also receiving a Best Rap Album Grammy nomination – his third subsequent album to do so – it is clear that, after a decade of evolution, Tyler has defied his doubters and has nothing left to prove at this stage in his career.
4. Conflict of Interest | Ghetts
Ghetts, who made his name in the infamous pirate radio sessions of the early-to-mid 2000s, has been a stalwart of Black British music since grime’s inception. He has since developed his artistry, transitioning from firebrand grime MC, taking his freestyles and learning how to craft songs and albums. As alluded to by the intro to Conflict of Interest, his latest offering and third studio album which, following his signing to Warner, is also his major label debut album, Ghetts is ageing like ‘Fine Wine’. The project is arguably his best work to date – it is very well put together and feels better crafted than his previous works. It is evident that considerable time and effort has gone into every aspect of the album, from song placement to the expertly selected features, such as Jaykae’s verse on second track ‘Mozambique’. The album opens in hard-hitting, explosive and frantic fashion and the relentless and frenetic pace at which it continues for much of its first half is almost akin to the radio sets in which Ghetts originally honed his skills. Save for ‘No Mercy’, the 13th track which sees Ghetts link up with BackRoad Gee and Pa Salieu, two of the most exciting new prospects from the UK scene, the second half is comparatively slower and the tracks are more introspective. Throughout the project, Ghetts showcases his growth after over 15 years in the game. From the beats and transitions to the top level lyricism and wordplay, Ghetts has got everything on this album to certify his legendary status.
3. Still Over It | Summer Walker
The success of Summer Walker’s debut album, Over It, thrust her into the R&B limelight when it arrived in October 2019. As the title of her 2021 sophomore follow-up suggests, Still Over It is a continuation of the same unique blend of messy toxicity and honest vulnerability. As such, it is difficult to avoid direct comparison between the two projects.
Despite the highs on Over It – such as the star-studded list of features on hits including the PARTYNEXTDOOR-assisted ‘Just Might’, the Usher-assisted ‘Come Thru’ and the Jhené Aiko-assisted ‘I’ll Kill You’ – being higher than those on Still Over It, I still prefer this project. The individual tracks from Over It may be better but, as a cohesive body of work, Still Over It is greater than the sum of its parts. The songwriting, which has always been something of a strength of Summer’s, is even more refined and the themes of heartbreak, drama and relationship woes are better developed through her trademark relatable storytelling. Whilst Over It was targeted at anonymous past lovers, Still Over It takes clear aim at London on da Track, the executive producer of Over It, Summer’s ex (with whom she recently went through a very public breakup) and the father of her child. There’s a certain emotional rawness which can be heard on this album – most likely due to the fact it was recorded whilst Summer was pregnant and still going through her tumultuous relationship with London – and this makes for a compelling, if not somewhat triggering, listen.
2. The Off-Season | J. Cole
J. Cole kicks off his sixth album, The Off-Season, by proclaiming, “this shit too easy for me now”. After over a decade in the game, Cole – a member of the “middle child” generation of artists who came up in the late 2000s and early 2010s, whose careers are approaching their twilight – has every right to brag. For many years, Cole was widely regarded as one of the leaders of this school of hip-hop, alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Drake (he even laments the comparisons with these contemporaries which have since followed him throughout his career on his ‘Heaven’s EP’ cover of Drake’s ‘Pipe Down’). Cole has discussed the unique pressures which come with being between the old and new schools of hip-hop on tracks like ‘MIDDLE CHILD’, and further alludes to this on eighth track ‘l e t . g o . m y . h a n d’, where he raps, “Sometimes I question whether this shit matters / Puttin’ substance into something in a world so used to instant gratification”. With the new school seemingly abandoning the lyricism which has been a staple in hip-hop since the genre’s inception, Cole’s generation represents the last vestiges of the old school’s dedication to lyricism. This dedication to lyricism is evident throughout The Off-Season, which sees the return of mixtape Cole, with its title and artwork referencing the basketball theme of his early projects, The Warm Up (2009), Friday Night Lights (2010) and Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011).
In an article he penned for The Players’ Tribune titled “The Audacity”, Cole writes: “If I rededicated my time and attention to my craft and allowed myself to fall back in love with the sport of rap, then I could far surpass any level that my pen ever reached in the past”. The Off-Season is Cole falling back in love with the sport of rap. The surprising inclusion of (officially credited) features for the first time since 2013’s Born Sinner – with 21 Savage and Lil Baby delivering standout verses on ‘m y . l i f e’ and ‘p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l’, respectively – marks the project’s departure from the concept-heavy direction of Cole’s last few projects. Instead, the concept behind The Off-Season is simple (if its title or the samples of NBA star Damian Lillard which bookend fifth track ‘p u n c h i n’ . t h e . c l o c k’ weren’t clear enough): Cole is sharpening his pen ahead of his long-awaited next release, The Fall Off.
1. An Evening with Silk Sonic | Silk Sonic
Living with the pandemic for the last two years has made life pretty unpredictable, and it’s safe to say few would have predicted 2021 would see global pop superstar Bruno Mars and Californian crooner Anderson .Paak dropping a collaborative ‘70s funk & soul tribute album under the moniker “Silk Sonic”. It came as a surprise to most when, in late February, Bruno tweeted that he and .Paak had “locked in and made an album” but, after the release of lead single ‘Leave the Door Open’ a week later, it all seemed to make perfect sense.
Both artists are wildly talented and highly respected within the industry, and their chemistry is palpable throughout the project. Silk Sonic was born in 2017 when Anderson .Paak opened for Mars on the European leg of his 24K Magic tour but it wasn’t until the Covid-19 lockdown that they were able to find the time to connect and complete the album. Anderson .Paak is no stranger to collaboration – his 2016 offering, Yes Lawd!, released in collaboration with producer Knxwledge under the moniker “NxWorries”, remains a classic example of everything that a joint project can and should deliver – and, with the monumental, award-winning success of his 2016 album, 24K Magic, going some way to bringing the New Jack Swing genre back into the mainstream cultural conscience, Mars has long been established as something of an afficianado in the art of paying tribute through his retro crooning. The two combined their respective powers to deliver a final project with heavenly production, catchy hooks and varied sounds, which takes you on a nostalgic trip to a simpler time. It’s the sort of album which makes you want to stock up on silk shirts as you listen, saying, “this is real music!”
The only criticism is its brevity. It is clear the aim was quality over quantity but, at just nine tracks, the whirlwind romance depicted – from the sensual love of ‘After Last Night’, to the relatable exasperation of ‘Smokin Out The Window’ and, finally, the slow, sad heartbreak of ‘Put On A Smile’ – feels a tad rushed and in need of further developing. Nonetheless An Evening with Silk Sonic, the feel-good masterpiece from start to finish, is the smoothest album of the year and it’s not even remotely close.