After the exhausting start of the decade that was last year, 2021 revealed itself to be yet another trying year for our patience with everyone and the audacity they held. Though, instead of wallowing in the uncertainty created by all of the unexpected, like we did last year, this year we were given a soundtrack that challenged how we'd interpret our world.
Last year, the best songs were the ones that distracted us from the tragedy outside. This year, the best songs came from artist who embraced themselves and found peace with the tragedies within. These artist gave us songs that taught us how to love the world we are in, but most importantly, they gave us songs that taught us how to love ourselves within this world.
Below, check out the list of artists that made this year memorable, and brought a wondrous soundtrack to the chaotic second year of what's sure to be an inevitably chaotic decade.
1.Megan Thee Stallion
Megan Thee Stallion
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There are some people that you don't have to meet to know that they are good people and should, at all times, be rooted for. For example, Barack and Michelle Obama. I don't need to know them to know that they are probably the nicest people in the world. Don't get me wrong. I know that they aren't perfect, but so do they, and that only makes them that much more desirable to root for. Amongst them, I would count Megan Thee Stallion. Yes, I know she is not in the exact same category as the Obamas. She is not a huge activist or civil worker as they are, but her genuineness and her ambition place her among their ranks.
Whether it's Megan judging ballroom on HBO Max's Legendary, her three Grammy wins, her promotion of "The Hottie Sauce" for her partnership with Popeyes, her collaborations with Ariana Grande, BTS, Maroon 5, Lil Nas X, her Sports Illustrated cover, her Met Gala appearance, or even graduating college with a degree in health administration, Megan Thee Stallion has made this year her own. And don't we love to see it!
Unlike the other artists on this list, Megan Thee Stallion has managed to succeed in every aspect of her life this year. While being in school, she managed to bring her music and artistry to other artists and to her own stage. Her performances have been entertaining, her features have been awe-inspiring, and her relentless body positivity has been a mirror for all Black women to unapologetically love themselves.
She has been a great artist, but most importantly, she has been a great reflection of how someone can succeed despite all of the odds stacked against them.
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Before the announcement of their collaboration, the idea of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars teaming up was ludicrous to me. Like a shot out of nowhere, I remember finding myself thinking, What a strange occurrence. Don't get me wrong, I had known them to have toured together before, but I never imagined them making an album together. My greatest bewilderment of the pairing had been everyone else's selling point: Bruno Mars. My mind just could never wrap its head around Bruno Mars truly being an R&B singer. (In hindsight, I attribute this to my once insistent belief--which I know now to be wishful thinking-- that Bruno Mars' singing funk and R&B was just a phase.) Nevertheless, my concerns were quickly assuaged from the moment the duo released "Leave the Door Open" under the name Silk Sonic.
Recreating R&B of the 60s and 70s, Silk Sonic easily reminded audiences of the once bold, vibrant, and adorned music of our past.
From "Leave the Door Open" to "Smoking Out the Window," Silk Sonic has made "come through" messages, insistent flirting, and unforeseeable heartbreak soulful, passionate, and, at times, downright silly. Their music is as smooth as it is nostalgically fun. Even listening to An Evening With Silk Sonic album felt like a Friday after a long week, with a warm, inviting fire and cold beer. The album isn't perfect, but its playfulness and fervent delivery are worth a listen. With "Leave the Door Open" still on repeat on the radio (and in my car) twenty times a day nine months later, there is no doubt that Silk Sonic remains powerful artists of this year.
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I am by no means a Doja Cat fan. Between her endless antics--her use of anti-gay slurs, her mockery of COVID (just to get it months later), alleged association with white supremacists--and constant evasion of cancellation, I find it hard to root for her. With this in mind, I reluctantly listened to Doja Cat's Planet Her album after not being able to escape one damn single from the radio. After listening, I find myself coming to a stunning realization: Planet Her is a damn good album, and the marketing behind its promotion was exceptional.
With a star-studded collaboration set, Planet Her is an infectious pop album that is quirky, insouciant, and quippy. While remaining pop, Doja Cat cleverly takes on melodies and beats of other genres, incorporating musical elements such as afrobeat, reggaeton, pop-rap, funk, trap, amongst others, to tell a compelling story. Which, in turn, makes songs that would have been typical and redundant into something new, worth enjoying. The album comes across as strong due to its intentionality. Nevertheless, this intentionality does not seem forced, or contrived, but instead cleverly crafted.
Some songs embrace womanhood and feminine diversity, such as "Woman," other songs explore the anxiety that one receives from the idea of intimacy, "Naked." Some aren't as thought-provoking and are made to only seduce or show one's desire to be seduced ("Need to Know" and "You Right").
Though there is no chance that Doja Cat will be seeing me at a concert any time soon nor paying any amount of money towards her empire, I must admit, with this album it is understandable why she is considered one of this year's guilty pleasure artists.
4.Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X
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Truth be told, I thought "Old Town Road" would be the first and last time we'd ever see Lil Nas X. Damn, I have never been happier to have been so wrong. At this point, I am elated that the world has not turned its backs on this beautifully, proudly open Black queer man. I am happy that the public is allowing his music to speak for itself and that Lil Nas X does not have to hide in a shadow of shame like so many queer Black men are forced to do in the music industry.
Every single released this year from Lil Nas showed that he has always been more than just some cheap gimmick, but an artist and businessman worth respecting. The visuals of his videos have been staggeringly artistic. His debut album Montero played with different genres and sounds, while the artist remained completely and unapologetically himself.
The album also reveals the loneliness that comes when one is a lone force to be reckoned with. It is catchy, yes, it is entertaining, but underneath all of the drums, the pop hooks, and melodious tunes, it is clear that happiness is a journey for the young artist. He is happy being himself, but with the price of that happiness, he seems to be sacrificing it everywhere else. Nevertheless, this year has been Lil Nas X's for the taking.
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Despite only being around for five years, it feels like there has never been a time without H.E.R. and her music. With her EP H.E.R. Volume 1 and compilation albums H.E.R. and I Used to Know Her, the artist made a name for herself amongst the public and the music industry. As if overnight, H.E.R. songs became known for their soulful flare, beautifully elegant arrangements, and powerful messages.
In 2021, she won a Grammy for Song of Year for the single "I Can't Breathe," a song about the anger, frustration, and pain of witnessing the death of another black innocent man, George Floyd. That same night, she won another for her moving ballad "Fight for You." Later this year, she followed up her wins with her first full-length album Back of My Mind. This album received acclaim for its maturity, ballads, and messages on success. Heavily leaning towards ballads, Back of My Mind is an R&B album that showcases H.E.R.'s vocal talents, but most importantly her songwriting skills.
By placing a contemporary spin onto the R&B genre, H.E.R. released an album that is as soulful as it is political, romantic, and unremorsefully honest.
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It has always been my biggest grievance (and if you've read any of my other music reviews you'd see that I have not hidden it well) that the world does not give Jazmine Sullivan the recognition she has always been due. Despite being an artist since 2003, and known to many, she always seemed to be a best-kept secret in the industry. There were moments when she would go mainstream ("Bust the Windows Out Your Car" is what mainly comes to mind), but those moments were few and rare in between.
Luckily, this year, the world showed Jazmine Sullivan that it is better to show up late to the party than to never come at all. And instead of turning her back to those who are finally looking, Jazmine Sullivan has made it her mission to step out and give us a show.
With the exceptional, empowering EP Heaux Tales, Jazmine Sullivan discusses the themes of feminism, sexuality, classism, body-shaming and positivity, and other moving topics with interludes in between. The EP is art and her live renditions of the album's songs, especially "Pick Up Your Feelings," only highlight the show-stopping talent that Sullivan has always been.
During her well-deserved SoulTrain Award for Album of the Year acceptance speech, Jazmine Sullivan mentioned being "uncomfortable being seen," and that after some time, she made a "promise to [herself] to not hide anymore." And thank goodness for that because the music scene and the Black community are much better for such deserving representation.
After his big showdown with the Recording Academy and lackluster halftime show at the Superbowl earlier this year, one expected The Weeknd to take some time off and focus on his artistry away from the public eye. However, this was not the case. Instead, every month, we found The Weeknd releasing something new. Whether it was a single that could, "Blinding Lights" dethroning "The Twist" for the all-time No. 1 Billboard single, or another collaboration with a fellow pop artist, Doja Cat or Post Malone, The Weekend managed to stay in the spotlight all of 2021. So much so, Apple Music named him the "Global Artist of the Year."
No longer known as the pop-synth guy, The Weeknd revealed himself as a true artist with his creation of After Hours. His ability to receive Grammy nominations, despite his boycott, shows just how truly an amazing artist the Weeknd is.
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SZA has been everywhere and, strangely, nowhere at all this year. Here, let me explain. With SZA's December release of "Good Days," it was inevitable that the single would climb the charts in the new year. After the release, SZA recorded live sessions from her home singing the single amongst others. In March, she released a video for "Good Days" and a month later "Kiss Me More," by Doja Cat featured the alt-R&B singer.
In later months, she would continue to release live performances, a mini fall tour, a single for Dear Evan Hansen's terribly acclaimed film, Summer Walker's "No Love," and another single titled "I Hate U." So, it's clear that SZA has been everywhere. Yet, in between all of these releases, she had managed to disappear from the limelight, for weeks to months at a time. So much so, that you would often have to go to her Twitter or Instagram profile to see what was going on with the singer.
Small clips of potential videos would be released, but when it came to the video--I'm looking at you, "Shirt"--and other projects, it all just felt like a tease. We know the work is out there, we can even see it. We just can't quite touch it. Still, I believe this "tease" is what has made SZA one of the artists of the year. She was never too much, always just enough.
She would release songs when the time was right and when it wasn't she would be off doing whatever she wanted while we shouted for another album. And honestly, despite desperately wanting that album, I find myself eager to wait because this year alone says it will be worth it. There are glimpses of her continuous indecisive behavior in her singles, that reflect the acclaimed CTRL. However, it is clear that the SZA that stands before us is one that is a little more whole than the one four years ago.
As if she's playing chess, SZA's ability to be in within and far out of one's reach this year, made it easily hers for the taking.
9.Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator
Who would have thought that the teenager eating cockroaches and singing about killing other artists to a demon in his head would, or even could, come so far?
Now, over the last ten years, Tyler, the Creator has released six albums, each one better than the formidable one before. Especially the newest release, Call Me If You Get Lost, which is the most cohesive and artistic album to date. Talking about the blessing and curse of growing up in the public eye, Call Me If You Get Lost takes us into the world of Tyler, the Creator under the guidance of DJ Drama. In this album, he confronts his success and the rollercoaster it has created. Tyler talks about love and its haunting. He talks about becoming wealthier and wiser, but in the end, the album seems a little more broken than before, but not unsalvageable.
The album is masterful, and in addition to his features this year, Tyler, the Creator himself is the same. He shows what beauty can be created when a person is given time to grow, instead of immediately calling for one's cancellation. He is more refined here, more mature, but he is still himself as audacious as ever.
Now, it's just a little more purposeful and controlled.
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Cardi B hosted the American Music Awards. She recently earned her third diamond single certification with the song, "I Like It." She starred in Normani's heavily praised "Wild Side" video while pregnant. She set February on fire with "UP" single, video, and TikToks. She collaborated with Lizzo, gave inspiration to Summer Walker, and became one of the most lucrative female rappers in 2021.
Cardi took the year for her own in the early part of the year, had a baby, took a two-month break, and came back to dominate the fall.
Just like H.E.R. and Meg Thee Stallion, Cardi B made her career off being 100% authentic and cultivated her career in knowing just when to be so. She could have released a full-length album this year, and in the spirit of rappers, it is honestly surprising that Cardi hasn't released more albums between now and her first. Instead, this year we found Cardi stepping into the role of product promoter, host, collaborator, and businesswoman.
Due to her ability to put on multiple hats--and wear them nicely--Cardi has shown all audiences and fans alike why she will always be "up" and "stuck."
Featured image by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Whipshots