The Artists that Defined 2021
Evan Dale // Dec 31, 2021
Enigmatic rapper, Pink Siifu was seemingly everywhere in 2021, doing seemingly everything that no one else has ever thought of, with a sound that no one else could ever replicate. If you’ve heard his music before, you know it for his experimental flow meandering through beats that make any listener reminisce on an sample-driven underground old-school crashed head-on with a futurist drip. And if you haven’t yet heard Pink Siifu, now is the perfect time to immerse yourself in the order of his solo canon: 2018’s ensley, 2020’s Negro, and 2021’s illustrious GUMBO’!, all three of which are among the most dynamic and unique projects in hip-hop’s recent memory. Along with GUMBO’!, Pink Siifu released his second collaborative tape with producer Fly Anakin, $mokebreak as well as a Deluxe Edition to their amalgamate collection, FlySiifu’s, all the while finding time to tour through the U.S. and Europe. No one did more in 2021.
Why Pink Siifu is 2021's Best Artist:
The year started off to the much-needed rhythm of her bold, powerful EP, Heaux Tales. With promises that an album is on the way, fans were left more than quenched by the pulse of her first release since 2015’s Reality Show, because frankly, Heaux Tales was conceptualized and brought to life with more gusto than just about any Soul-striven project since she last graced our presence. It’s a tale of feminine energy, sexual power, and nonconformance, breaking gender norms, burning down the establishment, and doing it all through the immersive emotionality of R&B music. With a forceful list of friends on board, the project quickly became one of the most necessary of the year, giving us all a soundtrack to defy the patriarch until her album finally does arrive.
If ever in recent years there was a more anticipated comeback than that of Isaiah Rashad, only Summer Walker – who also blessed fans with her re-emergence this year – could compare. Riding the force of the anticipation for his first album since 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, and third TDE studio album since he released Cilvia Demo in 2014, the Chattanooga-raised, LA-based rapper dropped a number of singles and videos to peak the people’s interest before the Summertime release of The House is Burning. Not only is the album undeniably one of the most uniquely defining of the year, but it was achieved through a reinvention and rebirth of one of hip-hop’s most popular artists. Overcoming addiction and a constant struggle against the limelight, Isaiah Rashad re-emerged with a new sound in 2021 that no one can get enough of.
Five years since her debut single, and three years since she first began the process of putting together a debut album, the California soulstress finally delivered in 2021. Really, she did much more than deliver. Overgrown is one of the most complete, unique collections we can remember, exploring the rangy discourse of her strong featuring canon to date. It meanders through an undeniably old-school Soul, a Golden Era reminiscence, a new age R&B, electronic production’s infusion with it, and a whole lot of hip-hop, including featuring verses from Freddie Gibbs and Westside Gunn. It’s a self-portrait of who she is and who she’s been working to become since the beginning of her career, and that someone is one of 2021’s most defining artists.
Teaming up with LA studio, Gold-Diggers for his first independent album, Leon Bridges became a symbol of creative freedom in 2021. The Atlanta-born soul singer whose rise was more to thank for his unparalleled vocal skillset than it was for a 60’s reminiscent direction that crept through all of his studio albums before this year, was finally able to explore a sound that he wanted to. Gold-Diggers Sound was the outcome and is a stylistically meandering whirlwind of all that he has to offer. Still building off the pillars of an old-school soul aesthetic that has left him a comfortable bridge between a pop audience and Neo-Soul for a decade, he also infused the album with unfairly coiffed explorations of R&B, raw funk, and a whole lot to be excited about in his future.
NO ROADS is not one of the best albums to emerge from the underground this year. Nor is it one of the best projects to come out of a Nashville scene burning with a hip-hop and Soul orbiting inferno that makes it one of the most exciting cultural hubs anywhere in the world right now. NO ROADS is instead one of the most immersive, important – and quite arguably the best – album of the year, period. It’s the debut from Bordeaux, Tennessee’s Reaux Marquez who has been a figure on the quickly exploding Nashville spectrum for years. Conceptually, poetically, and productively, it is a masterpiece defining yet another dominant run for the city at large, and yet another reason why the interwoven web of artistry from in and around Nashville continues to earn its place in a larger cultural conversation of influence and supremacy.
If there is a female and R&B counterpoint to the anticipation that orbited Isaiah Rashad in 2021, it’s Summer Walker. The soulstress exploded onto the soundscape with the popularity of 2019’s Over It, but has been dodging the public eye ever since. She’s spoken on her struggles with social anxiety in the past, but this year was able to channel the pain of love, lust, loss, and the limelight into a follow-up to her 2019 breakout. Still Over it is an immaculate R&B album, teaming with enough drama and vulnerability to keep even listeners outside of the stylistic spectrum engaged. And yet, it’s a reinvention of self without straying from the bread-and-butter of a timeless sound that keeps anyone listening reminiscing on the 90’s Golden Era with the thought that with artists like Summer, perhaps a new Golden Era is underway.
There is a strong case to be made that the New Jersey born rapper, producer, and all-around creative did more in 2021 than anyone else. With his first album in five years – an album that can really be seen as a rebirthed debut of sorts, the release of a Sundance Award winning short film that doubles as a visual album for the same project, and a recent Academy Award nomination for the same short film, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is a game-changer for music at large, where the construct that orbits a project can exhibit much more than just music, and that music videos themselves should be rethought altogether. Topaz Jones’ contributions to 2021 are radical and omnipotent, and Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma’s roles in the future of music and film’s intersectional relationship will redefine the work of creatives everywhere.
The sister duo who more than dabble in the realm of 90’s renaissance R&B put in the work in 2021. Starting with a smattering of singles to set the tone that whatever it was they had in the works was going to through us all into a Golden Era frenzy, they quickly dropped Homegrown. By itself, the EP would have been one of 2021’s most influential projects for its strict adherence to a sound come and gone, but also for its unique position within that space. When they later in the year returned for an extended version of the project that nearly doubled its length and brought their most popular track, Slow Down to the remixing hands of Lucky Daye, it was game over. So early on in their career, VanJess have helped set a precedent for 90’s revivalist R&B, setting a tone, too, that we’re reviving more than just music, but fashion and film in the process.
The rollout towards his 2021 album, Call Me If You Get Lost was one of the most uniquely successful exhibitions of creativity in memory. Conceptually orbiting the filmic aesthetic of Wes Anderson and the mixtape era of the early 2000’s, the outcome isn’t only one of the year’s best albums, but a reset button for hip-hop at large. A call to be more aesthetically free from expectation, while simultaneously a call to out down the brash experimentalism and source some recent reminiscence in hip-hop’s storied past, Call Me If You Get Lost is a Gangsta Grillz mixtape, with a studio budget, taking visual cues from the avant-garde, while shaking the house-party with bass. And the vision behind it all – that of Tyler, The Creator – continues to prove that there is still so much more to artistically explore, and that all of us need to try a little harder.