The early ’90s might have been hip-hop’s golden era but thirty years later it’s apparent we’re entering a pretty special time for the genre. As much fuss as algorithmically generated tracklists have caused over the past couple of years, the current hip-hop landscape has been more diverse, creative, and boundless than that early time when the genre was seemingly recreated with every new release.
In 2021 especially, rappers have gotten out of their comfort zones, leaving behind familiar styles and sounds to forge new paths based not on what might sell or what the cool kids are doing, but on their own whims, fantasies, and newfound levels of access. Rappers like IDK, Tyler The Creator, and Vince Staples have always worked on the side of the field just left of center, but this year, they’ve all put out music that sounds effortlessly innovative, leaving behind the bombastic sounds that made them critical darlings to take creative risks — risks that have paid off, delivering some of their best output to date.
For IDK, that innovation came on his second album, USee4Yourself, in which he again takes a microscope to a single subject, examining it from multiple angles and drilling down to determine how he really feels about it. Whereas on his breakout mixtape IWASVERYBAD that subject was the institutionalization of Black men (especially himself) and on his debut album IsHeReal? he pondered the existence of a higher power and mourned the loss of his mom, on USee4Yourself he turns the lens to relationships and romance, filtered through his recent status as a rap star.
And while he includes frequent collaborator Rico Nasty and reaches out to the mainstream with features from Offset and Young Thug, he also burrows into his own hip-hop fandom, putting Jay Electronica and MF DOOM together on “Red.” That song also features Westside Gunn, one of rap’s modern avatar’s of bars-first hip-hop, while the production, on the whole, seems to take inspiration from Gunn’s Griselda collective rather than the brash sounds that defined IDK’s earlier projects. If anything, USee4Yourself sounds like if Yeezus was actually made by a Kanye who actually cared instead of just projecting the appearance of caring (IDK vocally sounds so much like him here, I made the personal decision to swap out all the Kanye songs on all my playlists with songs from this album).
Tyler The Creator, meanwhile, takes a different — but no less effective — tack on his new album Call Me If You Get Lost. While the production combines all of Tyler’s best eras — the soulful reinvention of Igor, the reflective pop of Cherry Bomb and Flower Boy, the abrasive rap on Goblin — the subject matter finds Tyler settling into his role as a recent Grammy winner and multimillionaire, embracing rap’s classic braggadocio in place of his former rebellious shock-rap provocations. Inviting DJ Drama onto the tape to provide hyped-up ad-libs, Ty positions the album as his own entry into the Gangsta Grillz canon.
On several tracks, including the lead single “Lumberjack,” Ty points to his Rolls-Royce, finding ever more elaborate ways to both flex and juxtapose the signifier of wealth with his social status, a la The Throne’s “N****s In Paris.” In a recent interview, Tyler cited BET as the resource that taught him everything he knows; on Call Me, he finally wears that influence on his immaculately tailored sleeve, embracing the bombast of the 2000s crunk era’s fascination with garish jewelry and unfiltered gasconade. He also gets really real about feeling rejected by Black people as much as white people on the autobiographical “Massa,” challenging the expectations against him directly rather than subverting them or simply acting out as he had in the past.
Challenging expectations and sharing the grim realities of his biography were never problems Vince Staples had. Instead, he found that his unflinching confrontation of the traumas that defined his upbringing was being swallowed up by his caustic production choices. It’s no surprise that the EDM-influenced, demented, post-apocalyptic pinball machine beats on Big Fish Theory kept people from tuning all the way into what he was saying or that the alarming screech of the “Blue Suede” instrumental washed out the track’s harrowing narratives of life in gang-divided North Long Beach.
So instead, Vince challenged himself — and frequent collaborator Kenny Beats — to make something more palatable on his self-titled latest. The beats are awash in something like nostalgia — if the word “nostalgia” could ever imply the paranoia creeping through tracks like “Are You With That?” and “Sundown Town.” The placid beats and laid-back delivery are exactly what it seems like Vince would have been doing all along were commercial considerations never a factor (one senses his prior resistance to playlist-friendly material was his own form of rebellion at the thought of being a “star”). Getting away from the crazed, frenetic production that anchored his previous projects let Vince’s voice shine through.
Even Dave East, that eternally maligned avatar of millennial New York City tribalism, has found his groove working alongside soulful producer Harry Fraud on the singles from the upcoming Hoffa. East has struggled in the past, trying to wrangle mainstream expectations with his own taste, to the point where some fans on Twitter have wondered at his inability to connect with a wider audience while artists like those on Griselda seemed to garner more support by avoiding doing the same. Employing the smooth production of Harry Fraud, Dave has never sounded more comfortable than he does on “Diamonds,” “Uncle Ric,” and “Chapo.” This is what he should have been making all along, maybe.
And that seems to be the end result of all this experimentation. Although I said rappers got out of their comfort zones, perhaps the title should read they found and got into their comfort zones. Each of the above-named artists sounds more relaxed, assertive, confident, and clear-headed than they ever have, with nothing to prove and no one to impress but themselves. In trading in their trademark production or shaking loose lyrical crutches, by embracing the tactics and beliefs they once held at arm’s length, they have tapped into a new vein of creativity. The result is a gold rush of unique, engaging, progressive hip-hop that the culture could certainly use much more of — and that fans should reward with their ears.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.