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If you are expecting Drake’s Certified Lover Boy or Kanye’s Donda to be on this list, look right away. While the Grammys may have showered them with nominations, our in-house rap geeks can assure you that those albums are just bloated and overhyped.

CLB streams may have hit the stratosphere but its cred in the rap hood ‘started from the bottom’ and is still there. While Kanye may love Kanye, don’t think he liked the half-baked product that record companies shelled out without his approval.

Our picks for the year’s top rap albums were the ones we thought had a mix of incisive lyrics, promising emcees and legends, made all the right sounds, and surely made us think.

Fingers crossed for that Kendrick Lamar jam that we pray drops in December (“Ayy K.Dot”). Till then, here’s 2021’s best, for you to press play on.

The Off-Season by J.Cole

While not shooting incisive and thoughtful bars on the mic, J. Cole loves to shoot hoops on the court. This year the Dreamville founder aced both fields. He signed with Rwanda-based Patriots Basketball Club before dropping The Off-Season, his 6th album.

An all-star team of producers and rappers backed Cole up in this venture (Timbaland, Puff Daddy, Boi-1da, 21 Savage, 6lack) as he aimed for the modern maestro title.

In a recent interview with Slam magazine, Cole had hinted that he plans to hang his boots sometime soon. So, is The Off-Season Cole’s last attempt at a slam dunk? We hope the season continues.

Tracks we recommend: let. go. my. hand | pride. is. the. devil | the. climb. back

King’s Disease II by Nas

This year, the New York statesman delivered his 14th album, perched atop hip-hop’s high throne and turning his 1996 musing of ‘If I Ruled The World’ into reality.

The legendary emcee swayed through tales of success and lush lifestyle on the album, with stalwarts like Eminem, Lauryn Hill, A Boogie wit da Hoodie for company.

The first edition of King’s Disease in 2020 led to Nas picking up his first-ever Grammy! This time around, King’s Disease II will be vying for the Best Rap Album. Will the king from Queensbridge get another shot at the throne?

Tracks we recommend: Nobody | EPMD 2 | My Bible

Vince Staples by Vince Staples

Over his career, Staples has found himself in the company of rappers who aren’t afraid to be contemplative. Mac Miller was one of his early mentors and even produced the collaborative mixtape Stolen Youth (2013). While Odd Future mate Tyler, the Creator is alternative rap’s poster boy today.

On his self-titled fourth album, Staples brings in that accessibility while also playing his strong punches. Other than penning grim street commentary, a staple in his repertoire — the Compton native also delivered R&B grooves, moody musings, and goofy one-liners on a tight 22-minute-long album.

Tracks we recommend: Law Of Averages | Take Me Home | Are You With That?

The House Is Burning by Isaiah Rashad

Top Dawg Entertainment’s showstopper Kendrick Lamar may be on his way out. But with storytellers like Isaiah Rashad on its roster, the label still has a lot to offer.

The Tennessee rapper was caught up in a cycle of alcoholism and depression over the last few years. It didn’t help that his last album arrived 5 years ago and the pressure to stay relevant was mounting. Rashad’s search for answers led him to channel his past trials over well-crafted tracks, delivered in his free-flowing style.

The House Is Burning shines as Isaiah Rashad’s best work to date and marked his first entry into the Billboard Top 10 albums chart. The Grammys may have snubbed him in the nominations, but the 30-year-old can rejoice in coming clean from the ashes of his past.

Tracks we recommend: Headshots | True Story | Score

The Melodic Blue by Baby Keem

The youngest rapper on this list arrived this year with an album that’s given him some big moves into the scene.

The ‘Family Ties’ hitmaker actually shares family ties with Kendrick Lamar and flaunted his clout by bringing elder cousin K.Dot and a host of hip-hop heavyweights (Travis Scott, Don Toliver) on his debut album The Melodic Blue. Keem weaved musings on love, loss, and life over trap beats with flashes of a coveted legacy.

Tracks we recommend: family ties | scars | durag activity