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2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Rap
After a social injustice-battling, pandemic-stricken 2020, rap returned this year with a much-needed dose of bangers and star power.
This year was mostly dominated by extravagant albums released by rap's elite, as well as impressive entries from promising up-and-comers. As fans inched toward a place of somewhat-normalcy, rap once again provided the backdrop to our collective moments at concerts, music festivals and get-togethers.
While it may have been easy to get lost in the year's rapid-fire releases, there were a few artists whose songs and albums either started new trends or advanced old ones. Below, find eight lyrical, sonic and cultural trends that appeared in rap this year — and may just continue in 2022.
Florida rappers Yungeen Ace, FastMoney Goon, Spinabenz and Whoppa Wit Da Choppa got fans’ attention with "Who I Smoke." The ruthless diss track went viral for its head-turning sample, Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles," as well as its golf-inspired music video.
The quintessential 2001 pop song and sunny golf course video are a stark contrast to the song's graphic lyrics, which shed light on longstanding gang beef and gun violence in the rappers' Jacksonville community. Shock value is nothing new to hip-hop, but the song's disruptive juxtaposition, anchored by an admittedly infectious beat, opened new doors.
Foolio, one of the single's targets, continued the trend in his response track, "When I See You," which samples Fantasia's song of the same name. While sampling an R&B hit is a classic rap maneuver, the 2006 song’s contrast with Foolio’s particularly vicious lines made "When I See You" another unexpected offering.
Beginning as a forceful subgenre in Chicago, New York City and U.K. rap scenes, drill has been steadily creeping its way into the mainstream since the 2010’s.
Polo G, a Windy City native known for his somber, auto-tuned bars, carried drill further into the mainstream this year with his third studio album, Hall of Fame. Unlike its volatile predecessor, Polo uses a more melodic form of drill to wear his heart on his sleeve, making the sound more accessible to mainstream audiences.
Of course, the 22-year-old isn't the only rapper to capitalize on the growing trend. G Herbo's 25 and Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow's Still Sleep? also furthered drill this year, with Migos even dabbling in the subgenre on Culture III.
"Beat Box" by SpotemGottem was already picking up steam in 2020 with a remix by Pooh Shiesty — but in 2021, remixing the bass-heavy track became a full-on trend.
Rappers have long put their own spin on another artist's song, but "Beat Box" snowballed into a frenzy of derivatives like rap fans haven't seen in a while. After its first 2021 remix by DaBaby, "Beat Box 3," the song got new life with versions by Latto, Polo G, Renni Rucci, Lil Yachty, Calboy, Deante' Hitchcock, Dreezy, NLE Choppa and more.
The remix sensation shone a light on up-and-comer SpotemGottem, also giving hip-hop's competitive nature and borrowing culture an opportunity to thrive.
Pop-rap crossovers enjoyed chart-topping success this year, one prime example being Lizzo and Cardi B's "Rumors." The larger-than-life collaboration — which arrived with an equally extravagant video — peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop Songs Chart, proving pop-rap collisions are a trend that is here to stay.
Rap and pop were this year's most popular genres on the app, a trend that doesn't seem to be slowing down going into 2022. Beginning with Erica Banks’ "Buss It" and continuing with fiery tracks like "I Am" by Baby Tate and Flo Milli, rap music once again dominated viral dances and challenges on TikTok.
One artist whose music has become a comfortable fixture on the app is Coi Leray, whose song "TWINNEM" elevated the #MeganKneesChallenge. Though the challenge was initially inspired by Mouse On Tha Track's "Knees Like Megan" (an homage to Megan Thee Stallion's indisputable twerking skills), the pulsing beat of "TWINNEM" helped the tune become the second soundtrack to the challenge.
Old Classics, New Hits
Recycling old classics into new hits is a typical win-win in hip hop, and it proved to be a successful formula again this year. Several 2021 rap hits were powered by nostalgic samples, such as Polo G's "Bad Man (Smooth Criminal)," borrowing Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal"; Drake and Young Thug's "Way 2 Sexy," sampling Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy"; and Moneybagg Yo's "Wockesha," using DeBarge's 1983 track "Stay With Me" — a song famously sampled “Foolish” by Ashanti, who was featured on a remix of "Wockesha."
While City Girls' "Twerkulator" first reached fans as a viral TikTok leak, the Afrika Bambaataa-nodding track emerged as one of the best sampling rap songs this year. Plagued by clearance issues, the song — which samples Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and interpolates lyrics from Cajmere's "Percolator" — didn't appear on City Girls' 2020 album, City on Lock. However, its official release in May of 2021, along with a Missy Elliott-directed music video, gave the twerkable anthem potential and served as the Miami duo's comeback hit following the release of their album.
While Atlanta and Houston have often stolen rap's southern spotlight, Kentucky and Tennessee-born players came through in a major way this year. Gritty street tales told with southern swagger resulted in albums like Moneybagg Yo’s A Gangster's Pain, EST Gee's Bigger Than Life Or Death, Pooh Shiesty's Shiesty Season and more.
A Gangster's Pain by Moneybagg Yo was a particular win for the southeastern region, earning the Memphis native his first-ever platinum-certified and Billboard 200 No. 1 album.
Women-powered collaborations have been a hip-hop mainstay for decades, but they arguably hit their commercial stride last year with the viral successes of songs like Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé's "Savage (Remix)" and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP."
As female rappers continue to stake out more of their deserved territory in the genre, the trend continued this year, whether through raunchy raps or friendship-celebrating singles. One of these releases was BIA's "Whole Lotta Money (Remix)" featuring Nicki Minaj. Peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, the collaboration showed the potential for when a female rap veteran offers a helping hand to a burgeoning star.
Honorable Mention: Posthumous Albums
Though posthumous albums are not a flash-in-the-pan hip-hop trend, they were once again a somber necessity this year after the loss of several genre pillars. Always a bittersweet listen, posthumous efforts like Juice WRLD's Fighting Demons, Pop Smoke's Faith and MF DOOM's Super What? were a way for fans to hear what artists were working on and enjoy what they wanted us to enjoy.
One posthumous album that perfectly accomplished this was DMX's Exodus. While some posthumous works have been criticized for lacking completion and content, listeners could tell that Exodus was DMX's vision.
All but one collaboration, "Money Money Money" featuring Moneybagg Yo, were recorded prior to Dark Man X's passing, and the body of work he was so excited to release was pushed forward by his longtime friend and collaborator Swizz Beatz. With Exodus, a truly genre-shaking death was honored by a fitting and respectful tribute, which could influence future posthumous efforts for years to come.