Keeping up with a wide range of music throughout the year is a task that most attempt but few achieve. Drake, Kanye West, H.E.R., Migos, and French Montana alone released 117 songs from just six projects in 2021. With there seemingly being a new release from a titanic artist every other week these days, staying abreast of lesser-known acts could prove a bit difficult.
For this list, VIBE decided to save the Billboard hits, viral sensations, and songs so popular your grandmother could sing them at karaoke for another day (don’t worry, those are coming, too). Instead, we compiled the best-hidden gems of 2021; the songs that other publications probably snubbed from their lists.
Forgotten legends, promising newcomers, and those on the cusp of superstardom all released songs as good as anything you’d find on a more generically curated year-end roundup. Here’s the best of what you (and your other favorite music site) might’ve missed in 2021.
"Beretta" - Mereba
There’s a ride–or–die partner, and then there’s Mereba willing to “stick up the world with this cheddar” alongside the one she loves on “Beretta.” On this underrated tribute to unconditional love, the singer issues proclamations of love with a level of sincerity that makes even her most outlandish expressions sound grounded in reality. To drive home how dead serious she is about her lover, the multi-faceted singer momentarily strips the song of its frills and decides to rap. “If this ink could seep into your cerebellum, I would so eloquently scribe my feelings unto thee,” she spits like a Hip-Hop playwright. At this point in her career, Mereba has stood out on songs with the likes of 6lack, Vince Staples, JID, and Rapsody. “Beretta” is a great example of why her talents are so in-demand.
"Heaven" - Pink Sweat$
Philadelphia crooner Pink $weats released “Heaven” in February, and it hasn’t aged a day despite how quickly songs go from hot to cold in this era of microwavable music. Over ethereal strings that sound like they’ve been plucked from God’s kingdom, Pink $weats professes his undying love on an elemental level, declaring he’ll “love you like the tide, pull you close at night.” He deepens his voice during the verses to embolden his proclamations of love and raises it during the chorus as if he’s trying to reach the ears of angels when comparing the connection he shares with his lover to the feeling of being heaven. Not many love songs in 2021 sound this blissful.
"Snake Eyes" - Peter Rosenberg feat. Ghostface Killah, Crimeapple, and Jim Jones
Multi-hyphenated media personality Peter Rosenberg has contributed a lot to New York Hip-Hop over the last decade as one of the faces of Hot 97. Bringing Ghostface Killah and Jim Jones together for their first collaboration, “Snake Eyes” is Rosenberg’s latest of such contributions. On the DJ and radio host’s severely underrated album of the same name, Ghost and Jim are joined by New Jersey rapper Crimeapple on this ceremony of sh*t talking. Upon hearing Ghostface describe beating someone up as “tap dance all around a nigga jaw,” it’s hard to not be impressed by how after 30 years in the game the Wu-Tang veteran still finds fresh ways to convey old topics. Over Disco Vietnam’s baleful production, Jones offers NYC history lessons, with tales of him being in the streets at the same time Ghost was filming the music video for “Ice Cream” with Raekwon and Method Man in the mid-’90s. For all its components, “Snake Eyes” is quintessential New York Hip-Hop.
"Winter in America" - Freddie Gibbs
When the late soul singer and poet Gil Scott Heron noted the “frozen progress” of America as a sign that the U.S. was in a perpetual state of winter on his 1974 classic, “Winter in America,” Freddie Gibbs had yet to be born. However, nearly 50 years since the original song’s release, Gibbs uses his gruff, baritone delivery that he usually reserves for punishing rap foes to cover “Winter In America,” depicting a nation that’s still blanketed in broken promises. The rapper somberly singing lines like “all the healers have been killed” weighs heavy on the heart in the wake of the recent deaths of DMX, civil rights activists Robert Moses and Gloria Richardson, Michael K. Williams, and so many other people who brought joy to the world.
"THE WIRES/TORCHED" - Reaux Marquez feat. Tim Gent
Reaux Marquez’s No Roads is likely the best album you didn’t hear this year. “The Wires/Torched,” an atmospheric standout track from the project, finds Marquez at the peak of his underappreciated powers. Gentrification, police surveillance, and the internet’s influence on self-worth are all deftly deconstructed on this five-minute triumph. With assistance from Tim Gent tracing how those factors led Black people from “sitting on thrones” to “sitting on stones,” Marquez paints an abstract portrait of kings and queens who’ve had their treasures robbed and pillaged.
"Speed Trap" - Boldy James and The Alchemist
On the Alchemist-produced “Speed Trap,” Boldy James exalts the virtues of a trapper–turned–rapper, declaring he’s the “neighborhood wholesaler; fuck who rap best” and claiming to care more about modified guns than streams on Spotify. The Griselda storyteller elevates the song with a ten-second mini-movie during the second verse, describing a highway chase with the police. In only a few lines, he paints a vivid picture of an ex-con on his last strike racing up a turnpike with state troopers pursuing him from the left side of his car before he merges right to evade them. Even when the cops finally catch up to him, he reveals a second car behind him is the one with the drugs in them that could’ve had him serving a life sentence. It’s this meticulously efficient lyricism that makes Boldy James one of the best rappers out and “Speed Trap” such an entertaining song.
"Descendants" - Fire In Little Africa, Earl Hazard, and Thomas Who?
In 1921, hundreds of Black people in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” were brutally murdered. 100 years later, a group of Black artists from Oklahoma came together to form Fire in Little Africa and honor the lives lost in that massacre. “Descendants” is a burning reminder that as generations pass the anger over injustices only intensifies. The incendiary track overwhelms listeners with penetrating lines like “since the massacre happened, my people seeking revenge,” assuring Black people’s fury will be “Jehovah’s punishment for yo‘ wicked ways.” The revolution won’t be televised, but “Descendants” is a Dead Prez-esque warning of change coming one way or another.
"GRABBA" - Ron Suno
Over a haunting vocal loop and 808 bass that’d rattle any car window within earshot, Ron Suno’s “Grabba” had New York nightclubs in a chokehold since it was released on his Jokes Up project in July. Even though his street anthem is barely over two minutes long, the Bronx rapper comes out the gate with the sort of unhinged confidence New Yorkers are known for. On the track, the self-proclaimed king of Bronx drill stunts on old teachers who earn less money than he does, and compares himself to Trey Songz, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. If you ever want to feel the unflappable (and at times inexplicable) self-assuredness of a native New Yorker, bump “Grabba” as loudly as possible and let the mean mugs flow. Bing bong!
"Scatter Brain" - Conway The Machine feat. Ludacris and JID
Conway the Machine’s “Scatter Brain” is a lyrical exercise, and JID and Ludacris more than carry their own weight on this bar fest of a song. The track is a little over three minutes, minus the 12 extra minutes of rewinding that it takes to catch all of its impossibly complex wordplays. Conway comparing his refusal to perform oral sex on a woman to not “tasting nothing like a COVID symptom” requires a second to process over tears of laughter. JID’s use of former President Richard Nixon as a euphemism for cocaine before saying the law “finna Billy Clint’” an ex-con with two strikes is such a dense double entendre it borders political and lyrical genius. To close the song, Ludacris, an ageless wonder, drops in with exaggerated homonyms and jump-cut punchlines (“Headed to an early, grave now you dead and broke—life beat him senseless”), continuing a style of lyricism he pioneered two decades ago. “Scatter Brain” proves that while trends in Hip-Hop may be ephemeral, bars are eternal.
"Sinsation" - Adrian Daniel
With mesmerizing vocals, R&B renaissance man and genre-blender Adrian Daniels gives a taste of unadulterated hedonism on “Sinsation.” In pairing a playfully naughty title with self-indulgent lyrics, the musical prince from Kings County makes it abundantly clear that love can sometimes lead to self-destructive behavior. Lyrics like “heaven not for me if there’s no you, guess hell is where I’m heading to” blur the lines between toxicity and intimacy. It’s the records from artists like Adrian that make the future of Black music so exciting.
"Daily Bread, Pt. 5" - Vic Spencer
Vic Spencer doesn’t need much besides sparse drums and swelling synths to immerse listeners in the trappings of fast money on “Daily Bread Pt. 5.” The track is from Legend Laws of Power, the second of three albums the prolific MC released in 2021. With no chorus interrupting his two-minute-long train of thought, Spencer tells a tale of being exposed to a lavish lifestyle his cousin can afford through hustling, and the subsequent battle he fights internally to keep from straying down a similar path. Part of him wants to take the money, but his conscience makes him “think about the karma and doubt.” Spencer inviting listeners into his inner thoughts while illustrating the events that shape them makes “Daily Bread Pt. 5” one of the most engrossing Hip-Hop songs of the year.
"Longevity" - Benny The Butcher and Harry Fraud feat. French Montana and Jim Jones
On this Plugs I Met 2 standout, Griselda’s ace in hole Benny the Butcher kicks game about leaving the precarious life of the streets for the longevity of building a legitimate rap career. With a flow that can cut through any beat, Benny operates with the sage wisdom of a man who’s embodied the lessons he’s learned from his failures and now has no need to prove his gangsta.
Elsewhere on the song, French Montana flaunts the decadent life he’s built following an upbringing in which “drug dealers was the heroes, preachers was the liars,” as he, too, prioritizes longevity over the trappings of short-term hustles. But it’s Jim Jones who steals the show. Delivering the best verse he’s spit all year, Jones offers something more akin to griotic guidance than mere rapping (“And when calamity strikes it’s usually when fortune is close/ In the same breathe I know n*ggas that went from fortune to broke”). “Longevity” is grown man rap that eschews the “live fast, die young” rhetoric of a lot of Hip-Hop songs today in favor of self-preservation.
"My Dear Electra" - Q
His name may be too simple to stand out on Google, but Q exhibits some of the most intricate musicality in neo-soul today on “My Dear Electra,” a notable song from his The Shave Experiment (Director’s Cut) project. The South Florida singer’s soul slowly bleeds through each electric guitar riff, as he likens himself to a bird looking to escape the chaos of the storm by finding a new place of peace for himself and his love. He delivers lines like “spread your wings so we can grow” with a delicate falsetto emblematic of the type of caution he employs when nudging his partner out of their comfort zone and into the unknown. “My Dear Electra” is at once tender and fortifying, gentle and powerful, soft yet forceful in its message that a person could take on the world by the side of their soulmate.
"Go" - Baby Rose
Released in June exclusively via Dropbox (to this day, it’s still unavailable anywhere else), Baby Rose’s “Go” is a hidden gem worth unearthing. Using her Nina Simone-esque deep vocal range, Rose sincerely tries to convince a lover that their bond is strong enough to withstand the lies of the devil and the storms looking to disrupt their flow. In the context of love being a war, the singer asking her partner to “be a martyr” ironically amounts to an act of survival for both parties. “Go” reminds us love melds two people into one unit, and keeping that unit from fracturing requires more than kind words and gifts.
"RIGHT NOW" - Westside Gunn feat. Stove God Cooks and Jadakiss
Griselda mastermind Westside Gunn doesn’t view what he’s doing as rapping, he considers it painting, and his Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Sincerely Adolf standout track “Right Now” features some of his most vivid strokes. Over a smooth soundscape laid by Denny LaFlare, Gunn’s abstract flow depicts portraits of himself stashing razors in packs of prison apple sauce, purchasing a castle fit for Art Basel, and wearing “Margiela cowboy boots with the tassels.” Adding to Gunn’s mosaic, Jadakiss drops lines like “scrape the pot, let the resi stay,” taking listeners so deep into his drug dealing imagination, one could almost smell the cocaine remnants through their headphones.
"WOODEN NICKELS" - Mach-Hommy
The phrase “wooden nickels” refers to tokens of no monetary value outside of sentimental commemoration, and Mach-Hommy uses this concept on his song of the same name to share parables of good men whose kindnesses were taken for granted. Delivered through sardonic lyrics and a monotone flow, the rapper’s stories of watching his grandfather and father die without people doing right by them hit with a visceral sense of poignancy. Throughout the song, Mach sheds light on the “casualties of carrying the world” on one’s back and how “debts are transferrable but favors are not” with the temerity of a man who’s seen it all and is surprised by nothing. Serving so much food for thought, the track wisely takes long instrumental breaks, with saxophone riffs melting over somber piano keys, allowing listeners to properly digest the message in the meal.
"2010" - Earl Sweatshirt
Evolving since his debut caused critics to consider him the second coming of Nas, Earl Sweatshirt hasn’t had much interest in traditional rapping in a long time (the misleading title of his 2018 album Some Rap Songs notwithstanding). Instead, he’s become a lo-fi legend over the past few years, spitting abstract poetry over mostly unmusical instrumentals. But on “2010,” Sweatshirt turns back the clock and decides to rap like a rapper over an actual rap beat, resulting in his best work in years.
Perhaps a reference to the year his debut mixtape Earl drew comparisons to Illmatic, “2010” is a self-referential throwback to Sweatshirt’s blog era lyricism. From the opening line of the song’s sole verse—”Imma need a bigger bag for the cohort/ Tryna make a millionaire out of slumdogs”—the former Odd Future wordsmith maintains a steady, unimpeded flow. The track is impressive, refreshing, accessible, and a somewhat frustrating example of the sort of world-class rapping Earl Sweatshirt is still capable of.
"Ask Anyone" - LICE (Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman)
The news of MF DOOM’s death, reported months late on New Year’s Eve 2020, was met mourning and memorializing from the Hip-Hop community. As LICE, Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman connected on “Ask Anyone,” paying tribute to the man of many aliases. Tap dancing in vocal pockets over DOOM’s “Datura Stramonium” instrumental, Aesop Rock details why the villain was the people’s champ, likening the lyricist to both Michael Jordan and the fictional serial killer Jason. Homeboy Sandman extolled DOOM’s influence on everything from complex rhyme schemes to “making bad hairlines cool” before placing him alongside geniuses like Prince and Charles Mingus. To be memorialized in rhyme is perhaps the highest honor one could receive from a culture that often overlooks its legends. And no other legend is more worthy of such an honor than MF DOOM.
"Black Woman" - Nottz feat. Rapsody, Ke Turner, Rah Digga, and Nikki Grier
“Black Woman” is one of the best posse cuts of 2021 from any group of rappers, regardless of gender. Madame CJ Walker, Harriet Tubman, Roxanne Shante, Whoopi Golberg, and Salt-N-Pepper are just a few of the Black queens who receive their flowers on the song via Rapsody, Rah Digga, Ke Turner, and Nikki Grier’s razor-sharp flows.
Rah Digga reminds us, “The kings put it down, but the queens upgrade it;” Ke Turner promises, “It’ll take more than some bleach and cream to try and fade us;” Rapsody makes it clear, “Hating Black women ain’t a W;” and Nikki Grier hopes every Black woman “don’t let them ever tell you that you ain’t fly.” Off Nottz’s women artist-only compilation album The Future is Female, “Black Woman” represents a victory lap concluding a year in which women ran rap.
"Woo Baby" - Pop Smoke feat. Chris Brown
An argument can be made that far too much posthumous Pop Smoke music has been released at this point, as slain rappers deserve the peace in death they were violently denied in life. Much of Faith, Pop Smoke’s second posthumous album following a jam-packed deluxe edition of his debut, fails to live up to the music the drill savant released while he was alive. One exception to this is “Woo Baby,” the album’s second single on which Pop is heard experimenting with the sort of grizzled sensitivity he became known for beyond his more aggressive raps.
Sampling Ne-Yo’s 2005 hit “So Sick,” “Woo Baby” shares its formula with “What You Know Bout Love,” Pop’s 2020 single that samples Ginuwine’s 2001 classic “Differences.” What sets “Woo Baby” apart, though, is its addition of another male vocalist. Chris Brown carries his end of this duet so deftly, one begins to wonder what the singer would have sounded like in his teenage prime on a proper remix of “So Sick.” Featuring a familiar instrumental, undeniable charisma, and a willingness to have a bit of fun, “Woo Baby” contains the very best of Pop Smoke’s artistry. And out of respect for said artistry, this should probably be the last the world hears of it.
"Yamz" - Masego and Devin Morrison
A shameless yet nonetheless accurate plug: VIBE’s New Music Friday roundups are curated with great care. Sometimes we have no choice but to include songs from arena-touring, chart-topping, award-winning superstars. But more often than not, we tend to gravitate toward the work of smaller acts with outsized talent. This was the case on Friday, Nov. 19 when we led our roundup with Masego and Devin Morrison’s “Yamz.”
At the time, we described the song as a “clever, quiet storm-inspired pseudo-panty-dropper” that “demands the attention of R&B purists.” A month later, we stand by every word of this praise. We also noted the song’s clever wordplay, as it subverts the cliché sexual nature of euphemistic “yams” and instead expresses a craving for money—or as we put it, “checks, not cheeks.” Despite Masego’s high hopes, there’s still no telling if the record will ever become as lucrative around Thanksgiving as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is each December. But there’s one thing we can say with confidence: “Yamz” is likely the best song of 2021 to appear on no one else’s lists but our own.