The Best Albums of 2021
These are some albums that have defined the year in music so far.
Due to last year’s pandemic, musical activities have been unusual. At the midway point of 2021, many of the heavyweights in rap and pop are still holding on to their albums, waiting for the full-blown return of live concerts and festivals.
In their absence, up-and-comers like Pooh Shiesty and Olivia Rodrigo have stepped up and taken advantage of the lull to make noise of their own, previewing what music might sound like in years to come. If you miss the A-listers, though, you’re in luck.
All signs point to the second half of the year bringing the kind of blockbuster albums that have largely evaded us so far. J. Cole’s The Off-Season may have just broken the seal, and now we await rumored releases from the likes of Drake and Kendrick (and even a joint project from Lil Baby and Lil Durk).
J. Cole, ‘The Off-Season’
Label: Dreamville Records/Roc Nation/Interscope Records
Released: May 14
The night before The Off-Season arrived, “no features” was trending on Twitter. J. Cole had just shared a guest-free tracklist, and fans were already digging up old Photoshop files in preparation for another round of “platinum with no features” memes. It was all a fake-out, though.
As we soon found out, he was actually just setting us up for a stacked roster full of surprise guests, including 21 Savage, Lil Baby, Morray, 6lack, and Bas.
Because for Cole, The Off-Season is all about freeing himself of expectations. You thought he would rap over his own beats again? Nah, this time he teamed up with everyone from Boi-1da to Timbaland to T-Minus.
You expected another high-level concept album? Nah, he’s in mixtape mode, proving he can rap his ass off about anythingin various styles. You were waiting for him to fall off? Absolutely not. At 36 years old, he pulled off one of the best albums of his career so far.
Justin Bieber, ‘Justice’
Label: Def Jam Recordings
Released: March 19
More than a year after releasing the polarizing project Changes, Justin Bieber returns to form on his sixth studio album,Justice. Singing about his two most important relationships—with God and with his wife Hailey Baldwin Bieber—Justin pulls off a project full of stadium anthems that span several genres.
Justin experiments on Justice, venturing down somewhat unfamiliar (but not altogether surprising) avenues as he teams up with everyone from Nigerian superstar Burna Boy to Florida newcomer Dominic Fike.
One jarring aspect of Justice is the inclusion of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches as interludes, which jut out of place on an album that’s for the most part a love letter to Hailey (and despite the album’s title, do not have much to do with Justice in the sense Justin intends).
Still, he went about it the right way, reaching out toand working with MLK’s daughter Bernice King. Otherwise, Justice might be Justin’s most cohesive project yet. The married star mixes his penchant for hitmaking with deeply personal confessions, letting listeners in on just how much his life has changed in recent years.
There’s a sense of finality on some of these songs, an odd feeling for a 27-year-old pop star who is still racking up gaudy streaming numbers.