by Big Flowers
There is an infinity of releases to cover each year, and to organize that into a hierarchical list poses its challenges, oversights and potential superficialities. To supplement that list, I wanted to write this article which looks at six separate musical instances which changed the course of what we understand as the meta of being a listener today. Post-COVID and still mid-COVID, 2021 continued the ambiguity that surrounded so much of the economy of releasing music: livestreams replaced live shows, releases meeting delay after delay, and a general fogginess of what would happen to the industry. These six moments helped anchor the trajectory of contemporary music and pivoted us as a collective audience towards a more human soundscape.
I have already written an article focusing on this album, which should go to some length to say how much I cherish this release. If you want to read in full about just how much I love this record, check the original Dewtopia here. A beautiful collaboration between Camae and the producer for this album, Olof Melander, this is my favorite album of the year. BEotA traipses along the mortal coil, dissecting you as if you’re ,in part, the subject of the work. This is a once-in-a-black-moon release which transcends description, captivates you in an umbilical way for what feels like an entirety. As this album has matured since its release in September, and watching how Moor Mother continues to innovate through outlets such as Black Quantum Futurism, with books that propel thought into what afrofuturism looks like today, her overarching creative journey landmarks this year in a concrete way. From the halls of her gallery openings to the acceptance of her grant to work with the Knights Art and Tech Institute, Camae (Moor Mother) pushes the boundaries of an artist while still blending her universal experience into some of the most hypnotic, moving music of the new century. Between the sonics, the music videos, and Moor Mother’s continued musings through articles and interviews, this year revolves around Black Encyclopedia of the Air.
2. ZelooperZ’ release of Van Gogh’s Left Ear:
This album is a cacophony of everything two steps beyond the horizon of future music. The didactic, pumping flow that Ze laces over the twilight rainbow that extends from top to tail of this project is something that many resist just a bit at first listen. Somewhere within all of the effervescence, everyone I’ve shown this album to has found something endearing, innovative and pure. I haven’t heard someone this talented having this much fun in I don’t know how long. The lyrical non-sequitur is so clever it hurts sometimes, and there are other times it’s so hyperbolically corny that it takes you right back to DOOM. There is nobody that sounds like Ze, there is nobody that will sound like Ze. Beyond the music, this release saw an explosion in the visual art career of the rapper as well. He painted this cover, as well as the cover for fellow Detroit emcee, Bruiser Wolf, and Ze continues to sell paintings in every city he visits on tour. Seeing the art career along with the music career bloom this way creates gravity, and with the announcement of his involvement in the upcoming Earl Sweatshirt album, it’s hard not to give ZelooperZ all of the flowers imaginable, being a force of innovation and uniquity.
3.Ka’s release of A Martyr’s Reward
With the development of New York hip-hop being so tumultuous in the past half-decade, it’s no wonder the most reclusive, sage-ridden, and perennially talented artist out of the Brownsville comes full force to redefine what a rap album can do in this new decade. With some of the most clever wordplay I’ve heard this year, and the venerated veteran delivery that Ka is revered for trickles ever so eerily and disjointed over one of the more stripped instrumental bodies we’ve seen through one of his projects. A Martyr’s Reward is mostly self-produced, creating a Ka-shaped hole for the listener to push themselves through, and each of the beats drip with intention, subtlety and a penchant for curation. Some of the most brilliant moments in hip-hop from the last several years occur on this album in my opinion. There are unsettling hints of culmination being foreshadowed in this work, but Ka has never been an artist to over-supply in the first place. This is a master-class in legacy work, as each entry within his discography becomes harder and harder to follow up. For the fans of mysticism, true craftsmanship and the absolute antithesis of capital music, Ka is the most shining example of that this year. Probably every year. However the most important part of this release is the continued legacy of aging with grace. The more Ka ferments in his snow-bearded recluse, the more he commits to his humility, his brash handle on refined flow & sequitur. As you see some artists age into white and continue to produce self-imposed typecast albums, and dissociate to the public eye, Ka is and has been a beacon for constancy, structure, and the exceeding of expectation. There is no denouement in sight to Ka’s career, as the hunt for more never ends, and A Martyr’s Reward is a bountiful chest well along his discourse to decay.
4. Pink Siifu’s Trip Around the World
While only being able to make It to one show of his this year, I made it a point to follow the live happenings of Siifu. To release albums so vibrantly different from each other in such a short period of time is feat enough. Between his works with FlySiifu’s, B. Cool-Aid, along with his solo works (Ensley, NEGRO/NEGRO DELUXE, and GUMBO’!), his young discography is more varied than most musicians after a full career. And that’s why touring three of those albums in a single year is all that much more of an accomplishment. The show I went to was one of the most intimate settings I’ve witnessed at a concert. Corpus ran, over blacktop, Siifu closed his eyes and prayed thru the microphone, turned the whole damn block into his room. Overseas, it was a different story: psychedelia, push-pits, stage dives and a whole lot of screaming, all in the name of a new Jazz. Bringing the band with him, Siifu took Europe. Jagged, pseudo-violent, and with near-destructive energy, those shows paint another contrast against the record store clerks that daze eternal with Siifu & Fly Anakin’s collaborative works. The laid back performances, hoodie up, and full switch on lyricism, delivery and buttery-slickness, it’s hard to believe that was the same Siifu on stage. Mid-drum solo, same thought enters. Mid-innercity-hymnal, same thought enters. I have no idea how Siifu is so multi-faceted, but it is something to admire, and set the new bar for what a live show needs to be.
5.More than Music in New York
With live performances being stripped of their home in social routine, one of the busiest cities, usually insomniac, seemed dormant at a birds eye as the year 2020 turned over. A year prior, New York was just residually digesting the indigenous festival in Young World, a three-day gathering that highlighted the breadbasket of hip hop brewing in the boroughs, influencing the country. New Years 2021 wasn’t nearly as festive performatively, as reservations were still being held due to pandemic yields. As the year progressed though, the city wouldn’t sleep. Outdoor shows started popping up with mask mandates, admission caps and general ambiguity of how it would all play out. Some worked, some never found footing and met delays or cancellations. Eventually, things began to return to the normalcy we involuntarily forebode thanks to COVID. However, one thing that seemed to perforate NYC was a sense of purpose in returning to show culture. One primary actor in this movement was the city’s collective operation in PTP (Purple Tape Pedigree). Beyond being a musical outlet for some of the more brilliant music of the year, and more importantly in my eyes, PTP opened up a comfortable, intersectional and safe environment for a musical community to reconvene, and make a difference while doing so. Native to the city, King Vision Ultra, leading PTP, threw several shows in recent months, pre-Omicron with iconic acts such as DRMCRSHR and Fatboi Sharif, each event acting as a coat drive, a community funding oriented tag sale, or other underground philanthropic cause. These performances meant more than music, they indicated a more thoughtful and aware culture among the shows we attend in New York. It’s not to say that this wasn’t present before, but it seems like thanks to PTP, this philosophy of making a communal difference with the music is at the forefront of how New York is returning to a contemporary concert circuit.
6.Chicago In the Spotlight
In a year that saw explosive prominence from cities like New York with AKAI SOLO, Mimz and MIKE releasing some incredible albums, and Detroit/Flint with Babyface Ray, Veeze and others, I look at Chicago as being the city that put out some of the most contemporary and important music of the year. Rich Jones decorated the calendar with a few singles alongside Blue Beach, a bite-sized paradise that gives oasis to Illinois. 4 tracks, each momentous, fluid and radiant with wordplay that dances just outside familiarity, exposing the novelty of craft that Chicago has been brewing. Rich has also populated tracklist after tracklist as the year has gone on, from Defcee & Nick Arcade’s “non-sequitur pt. 2” to Sleep Sinatra’s Late Feez, and even into next year with the recent preview of BloodMoney Perez & Messiah Musik’s “The Prey,” studding not only the calendar but the map with bars that deliver something unique, palm trees among the cityscape. At the same time, in the same city, Semiratruth was making a case for best lyricist of the year with her project I GOT BANDZ FOR THE MOON LANDING rounding out an already stellar year. MIRA, which released earlier on in the year delivers a sultry and refined look at history, each scar tenderly remembered with a bold, beautiful amble along her vernacular. The project so purely raps up a sense of feeling at home within yourself and the community that helps build you. IGBFTML, arriving once the sun started coming out less often, put your eyes directly on the moon, watching Semira transcend anyone’s expectations and giving an interstellar voyage of self, expansive as the universe, all confined in the richness of soul that is her presence on this project. This is a project that demands a level of respect, not only for Semira and all of the work that went into the engineering and production, but yourself. This album creates a galaxy for you to find meaning among the vastness, and is another candidate for not only album of the year but of the decade so far. Alongside in that conversation is another Chicagoan, Defcee. Releasing Trapdoor, which not only is indicative of a novel Chicago sound, but something that’s pure and indicative of contemporary hip-hop. If you needed one album to depict what the underground of hip-hop is headed for I’d argue it’s this. The dedicated producer-emcee approach, lyricism that focuses on the development, dissection and direction of self and universal betterment, along with wordplay that is clever, referential and layered without ever being corny (see also Armand Hammer’s HARAM). Trapdoor takes a fine tooth comb, and it’s something that you need to digest over several listens. It’s simply too dense, not in a critical way, but there are so many world-bending moments that just distract you from the next bar with their sheer gravity. And the amazing part is, similar to IGBFTML, Trapdoor only capped an already busy year for Defcee. Ceenick’s deluxe edition saw the sci-fi color graded collaboration between Defcee and Nick Arcade blossom into a full neo-noir album of an offering. We Dressed the City With Our Names most directly pays attention, love and homage to Chicago over August Fanon’s master class of a 6-piece. “All You See Is” takes you down a decade and a sidewalk on main streets at the same time, every memory populating the half lit apartment windows, splattered with drops of tag spread paint. In September, defprez released Sunday Sessions which again gave a different, autumnal digestion of groupthink. It seems like each track became an artifact that know the same carves from concrete which cee passes back and forth with his colleague in namesake/lyricism with CRASHprez. Beyond that, collaborative project UDABABY LP and rapper/producer GreenSLLIME both further elastify the sense of genre within the city. The former’s “2004 World Series of Dice” spilling attenuated organic loopsmithing and relaxed, yet contorted delivery, juxtaposes the latter’s deconstructed and orbital cloud-plug cypher in their loose “Sell Coke to White Folks 2.” In a city that’s constantly defining itself, there’s variability, finesse and penchant for something novel oozing abundantly from the grid work of Chicago. This is the most expansive, detailed and final segment of the article because in so many ways, Chicago delivered the most expansive, detailed segment of American hip-hop in 2021.