When Derrick and I founded this site, we didn’t think of our MVP as crowning a ruler over the kingdom of music. It’s always been about your name. I was doing this before the name Kendrick Lamar elicited ANY reaction. The artists in consideration for this award took their name and elevated it to places it had never been. It doesn’t mean they were unknown before, it’s rapidly becoming harder to know who is unknown. The pool of innovative artists in music has overfilled the vessel that holds it. These folks carved their names in their spaces. While outworking so many they still left us wanting more. I can’t tell you how much of an accomplishment that is. Being an honorable mention is a feat not because I said it but because this award only happens on top of a mountain of smart hard work that paid off.
No one had the year Sleep had. He released his most personal album, Sleep Gloriously in March. Followed it with a masterfully dark analysis of this decaying world in DIVINENATION which he produced entirely himself (that dropped in May). He got locked up got out in time to drop his most polished album of the year on the day it ends (In God’s Image). His best song of the year is actually the last song of it. Track 13-Last Breathe on In God’s Image as Nicholas Craven makes the strings squeal over a tight chipmunk’d sample Sleep sums himself and his year up “These songs is a portrait of my brain contorted into the frame of an artist. Harnessing hardships to fuel where my life’s charted.” And hits his greatest hook, daring to sing his heart out. In 2020 Sleep was an artist operating at a high level. In 2021 Sleep was an elite craftsman only interested in new ground. The faith his audience has in him at this point is on a special level.
The success of Lukah exists on two levels. It’s a celebration of this fire breathing delivery and stark nihilistic poeticism that goes right back to Scarface. In addition, a high five acknowledgement to the hip hop media who identified this talent and put it on center stage. When The Black Hand Touches You dropped in January and right as it dropped I was alerted to listen. By April I ran my review, by June I was sitting down with Lukah for one of my very favorite FME Attention Undivided interviews. By that time, I had told Nate from Dad Bod Rap Pod and he highlighted Lukah on their mid-year show. Nate told other music writers about Lukah. It was easy, once they actually hit play it was off to the races. By year end Lukah is on NPR’s top 50 albums list above Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, Silk Sonic, and lots of others. Lukah was dope before. Chickenwire is proof of that. In 2021, he took what was great within his skill set and projected it like the Bat Signal. The twisted metallic production of Why Look Up, God’s In The Mirror and the sorrowful soul samples of When The Black Hand Touches You, the albums were different worlds but both of them distinctly his. Black Coffins and Glasshouses are both 100% Lukah. The music inside him is more vast and varied than any of us knew but when we experienced it, we knew to appreciate it.
The best way to change how your name tastes as a rapper is attack. Three fronts of attack become the battlefield: album, EP, features. Instead of overloading our ears with new projects every month Defcee gave us the most impactful refined version of himself in these three spaces. I remember thinking it couldn’t get better than hearing Defcee talk about the stains on his shirt, TK and Noah in the intro track (Just A Kid Growing Up) on his EP with August Fanon, We Dressed The City with Our Names, putting the headphones on my son so he could hear the closing track Alive. Telling him “this is what it sounds like when you put everything into your writing.” He cleared the court on Anarchy and Chigazi off Jason Griff’s album Fireside Chats. Did the same thing on Fines Double’s album Flotar (Shrug and Hogarth Hughes are monstrous) jumped on the posse cut of the year Do Em Filthē (ft. Decay the Llama, Tone Liv, greenSLLIME, SolarFive and Defcee) off IAMGAWD & Doc Da Mindbenda’s fantastic album Hell’s Angels and Heavens Demons. He even stepped into the instant classic Little Robert Hutton to pay love to both Chairman Fred and Castro on F Stands For Hampton. As a white man in rap to stand on this song and just be a part of it, means a lot. All of this is before he dropped Trapdoor with Messiah Musik! They worked on this album so long I think their first communication was on a Sports Illustrated football phone and it is a wrecking ball of an emotional journey. I don’t want to quote lyrics from it, that feels like describing the best date of your life to your friends. You just need to do it. You just need to hear the two minutes and thirty six seconds of Fifty without doing anything else. If I had an editing award for MC’s I would give it to Defcee who found a way to cut any and all extemporaneous fat from his spoken space in 2021. Every time he spoke it was something we needed. That attention to detail takes the kind of focus that literally drains you.