Our top musical moments of 2021, from best verse to radio freestyle

Interviews, performances, earworms, songs to get on it — here’s how we’ll remember the past year

There’s so much music dropping these days it’s almost impossible to come up with a comprehensive list of the great offerings in any given year. We gave our thoughts on some of our favorite albums already, but there were so many other musical moments, performances and loosies that we wanted to spotlight as well. That’s why there’s this nonscientific list of our favorite things to happen in music in 2021.

Verse of the Year

Andre 3000 on Kanye West’s “Life Of The Party

Rapper Andre 3000 performs at ONE Musicfest at Lakewood Amphitheater on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

First off, Andre 3000 deserved better than to have this masterpiece of a verse become another prize in Kanye West and Drake’s junk-swinging ego-fest. Andre 3000 poured his heart out, envisioning a heaven where he and West’s late mothers share, love and protect their sons. It’s the type of raw emotion and originality that makes Andre the greatest of all time. The circus surrounding the verse — West choosing to use his allotted time to rap insults at Drake and Drake leaking the song for some reason — is only a reminder that Three Stacks is artistically and socially just above the fray. — David Dennis Jr.

Most Frustrating Verse of the Year

Drake’s “Lemon Pepper Freestyle

Drake onstage during the ‘Till Death Do Us Part rap battle on Oct. 30 in Long Beach, California.

Amy Sussman/Getty Images

The best song of Drake’s career is “The Ride.” That being said, there’s a serious argument to be made that the five-minute masterpiece he dropped earlier this year is the finest verse of his career. Which is exactly why it’s hands down the most head-scratching verse of 2021. Drake took listeners into a full 360-degree view of his opulent lifestyle and blended humor, introspection and anticipation with effortless precision. If this was how he was coming in ’21, I wrote in March, then Certified Lover Boy had the makings of album of the year. Turns out, I couldn’t have been any more wrong. — Justin Tinsley

Tear-Jerker of the Year

YG and Nipsey Hussle on Maroon 5’s “Memories (Remix)

YG (left) and Nipsey Hussle (right) perform during EA Sports NBA Live 19 at Goya Studios on Aug. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for EA NBA Live 19

Admittedly, I’m biased toward Nipsey Hussle after the marathon it took to complete The King of Crenshaw podcast, a collaboration between 30 for 30 and The Undefeated. But this song seemed to drop from the heavens. It features one of the closest brotherhoods in recent rap history, with YG confessing to having “Some homies in heaven now that watch my back.” And Hussle responding, “It’s all right, you can tell me your truth, I won’t budge.” Tragic and beautiful. — Justin Tinsley

Interview Moment of the Year

Ghostface Killah’s shoot-out with The Delfonics

Ghostface is one of the most creative, fascinating minds in rap music. He also, apparently, used to be one of the wildest dudes in the game. This story from his and Raekwon’s Drink Champs interview about getting into a shoot-out with the legendary soul group The Delfonics on his tour bus is one for the ages. – David Dennis Jr.

Annual Plea For You To Get Into Battle Rap

Geechi Gotti vs. A Ward

Every year I try to convert five new people to loving battle rap. You may hear the phrase “battle rap” and think 8 Mile, but it’s so much more. The face-to-face rap competition displays some of the best lyricism in hip-hop. This battle between Compton, California, emcee Geechi Gotti and Christian rapper A. Ward was one of the best of the year. – David Dennis Jr.

Top Four Performances Of The Year

4. Doechii performing “Wat U Sed” at the BET Awards

“Wat U Sed” is one of my favorite songs of the year (the reinterpretation of “Da Bunny Hop” just warms my Southern heart) and both Isaiah Rashad and Doechii float on the beat. But Doechii’s performance at the BET Awards took the song to another level. In the world of TikTok and viral clips, it’s rare to have a star-making network TV performance, but this is certainly one. – David Dennis Jr.

3. Ashanti (and Ja Rule), Verzuz

Ashanti (left) performs with Ja Rule (right) during his Verzuz battle against Fat Joe at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 14 in New York City.

Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Ja Rule’s name has been dragged through hell and back for two decades as he weathered the storm of 50 Cent and his own poor decision-making. But for one night, he was a star again, reminding the world of his hits in his Verzuz with Fat Joe. But it was Ashanti who ruled supreme, especially when she was singing hooks for both Ja Rule and Fat Joe. – David Dennis Jr.

2. Tyler, the Creator’s “Massa” at the American Music Awards and “Lumberjack” at the BET Awards

Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost is right at the top of the list of my favorite albums from 2021, and he made sure we had visuals and live performances to match the greatness. – David Dennis Jr.

1. The Lox, Verzuz

I wanted to hot take this and go with something less than obvious. But, really, we have to stay with the obvious. The Lox’s dominance in their Verzuz with Dipset in Madison Square Garden was an instant iconic rap moment. Of course, Jadakiss was the MVP, stealing the show with his verse from “New York” and his “Who Shot Ya” freestyle. — David Dennis Jr.

Best Thing To Watch When It Comes On Your Timeline

Fans reciting lyrics at festivals

Doja Cat performs during the Made In America Festival at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 5 in Philadelphia.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation

One of the things we missed from a year without music festivals is seeing crowds react to artists and give us an idea of just how much their music is resonating. A couple of clips that I loved watching: a Flo Milli (who I love) performance at Lollapalooza, with the crowd singing every word, and Doja Cat at Made In America, cementing herself as a legit megastar. – David Dennis Jr.

The Diversify Your Portfolio Award

Kash Doll in BMF

Kash Doll attends the Starz series BMF world premiere at Cellairis Amphitheatre at Lakewood on Sept. 23 in Atlanta.

Prince Williams/FilmMagic

BMF on Starz is already one of the best shows on television, and while much of the talk centers on Demetrius “Lil Meech” Flenory Jr. playing his father “Big Meech” and Da’Vinchi as his brother Terry “Southwest T” Flenory, Detroit rapper Kash Doll plays Monique and more than holds her own. Then there’s what happened off-screen. Expecting her first child? Prank FaceTiming Kevin Durant? Not a bad 2021. Plus, anyone who survived the hurricane that was Lamar Silas deserves a Purple Heart. — Justin Tinsley

Rap Albums We Didn’t Talk About Enough

Twista, Shooter Ready

Twista at the iHeartRadio WGCI-FM Big Jam on Dec. 18 at the United Center in Chicago.

Daniel DeSlover/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images

You want to talk about aging gracefully in rap? Twista is out here in 2021 with the same rapid-fire barrage that he had 25 years ago when he was one of rap’s most respected new stars. His album is short and mostly about guns, but it’s mature gun raps. He legally owns his weapons now and uses them to protect his family. It’s an interesting tweak, but mostly you’re going to want to stick around for Twista’s unique rap talent. — David Dennis Jr.

EST Gee, Bigger Than Life or Death

Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group has one of the hardest rosters in the game, headlined by Moneybagg Yo, 42 Dugg and Louisville, Kentucky’s, own EST Gee. Over the summer, EST Gee dropped this slapper of a project that, if you pay attention, is defined by paranoia and the stress the streets inevitably foster. The project was championed in certain circles but deserved more flowers than it got. Remember the name EST Gee as we head toward the new year. – Justin Tinsley

R&B Albums We Didn’t Talk About Enough

Shelley FKA Dram, Big Baby DRAM

Shelley FKA Dram has been on a run of great music, dating to his 2016 studio debut Big Baby DRAM. His follow-up is a more adult-themed journey through breakups, divorce, infidelity and remorse. The bops are still bopping, but he shines on his ballads such as “Cooking With Grease,” “Exposure” and “Remedies.” – David Dennis Jr.

Khalid, Scenic Dream

Khalid performs on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on April 4, 2019.

Andrew Lipovsky/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

It seems weird to put a star in this category, but it sure feels like Khalid’s Scenic Drive fits the bill. Maybe it’s because he dropped the album in December, but whatever the reason, it does little to negate the fact buddy dropped a nine-track heater. It’s a feature-heavy project, with stellar talent such as Alicia Keys (“Intro”), JID (“All I Feel Is Rain”), Majid Jordan (“Open”) and Ari Lennox (“Scenic Drive”), each sounding at home with Khalid’s signature crooning. Do yourself a favor and hit play. – Justin Tinsley

Soundtrack For Maxing Out At The Gym

Boldy James and The Alchemist’s Bo Jackson

Rapper/producer The Alchemist performs during Day 1 of Rolling Loud Los Angeles at NOS Events Center on Dec. 10 in San Bernardino, California.

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

The Alchemist has been lacing rappers with some of the most raw, grimy boom-bap beats you’re going to hear. Combine that with Boldy James’ aggressiveness and you have the recipe to hit as many squats as your glutes can take. Make sure you Epsom salt up afterward. – David Dennis Jr.

Song That Could Get You Pregnant

Jazmine Sullivan and Ari Lennox’s “On It”

Jazmine Sullivan (left) and Ari Lennox (right) perform onstage at the BET Awards at Microsoft Theater on June 27 in Los Angeles.

Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET

I’d like to shout-out all the babies born in October, because more than likely it’s due to this sexy duet between two of the best singers out. I won’t go into detail, so you’ll have to listen on your own. Just don’t do it at work. – David Dennis Jr.

Sample of the Year

Wale, “Dearly Beloved”

Wale performs at the Rolling Loud music festival at Citi Field on Oct. 29 in New York City.

Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images

The Jamie Foxx Show deserves to be on the same tier of Black sitcom lore as Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Which makes sense given that Foxx is the greatest entertainer of our lifetime. Now, with that out of the way, it’s almost ridiculous that it took this long for someone to sample this scene. Could Dearly Beloved have been longer than 109 seconds? Maybe, but Foxx’s lyrics about a love lost and Wale’s angelic sample made for one of the perfect songs of 2021. — Justin Tinsley

Music Moments We Kept Repeating And We Don’t Know Why

Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar’s “range brothers”

Kendrick Lamar is one of the most complex and multilayered lyricists ever. But it was him repeating “top of the morning” a dozen offbeat times on his song “range brothers” with Baby Keem that stuck with me. It makes no sense and yet I woke up for 27 straight mornings going “top of the morning” until I started brushing my teeth. I woke my kids up saying it and everything. Lamar really just can do no wrong, I guess. — David Dennis Jr.

Big Sean and Hit-Boy’s “Loyal to a Fault

The hook in no way reflects my current life, but Big Sean and Hit-Boy’s “Loyal to a Fault” has been stuck in my head since it dropped a couple months ago. There’s something cathartic about rapping, “Nothing lasts forever, that’s just how the game goes/Can’t be outchea lookin’ stupid lovin’ lame h—.” Lil Durk’s verse is a standout, but the hook is the appetizer and the main course. — Justin Tinsley

Freestyle We Can’t Get Enough Of

Latto on L.A. Leakers

There’s not much better than a really dope radio freestyle. The idea of a rapper railing off flawless delivery live is exhilarating. And a fire freestyle can give us a look at a rapper in a new light. That’s exactly what happened when Latto tore apart the classic “Ain’t I” beat to tap into her Atlanta roots and announce herself as a force for 2022. — David Dennis Jr.

The “Stop Teasing The People” Award

Cardi B and SZA

SZA (left) and Cardi B (right) during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 22, 2018, in Indio, California.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Want to hear something crazy? Next year will be five years since SZA’s classic debut Ctrl. And four since Cardi B’s Grammy-winning Invasion of Privacy. Both women have remained as relevant as ever. Cardi B even became a mother for the second time! Every now and then, they’ll drop new music just to restore the feeling. Take Cardi B’s “Up” for example — a raunchy firestarter that can make even Uncle Luke blush. Or SZA’s “I Hate U,” which debuted as the No. 7 song in the country. In 2022, it’s time to give the people what they want — new studio albums! Here’s hoping we can actually be outside for each of SZA and Cardi B’s sophomore efforts, too. Let’s just put that into the universe now. — Justin Tinsley

The “This Made Me Smile” Award

Aaliyah’s music hits streaming

Aaliyah performs at 106 KMEL Summer Jam at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Aug. 29, 1998.

Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect

The 20th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death was in August. While her death still feels raw, there was something to smile about in regards to Baby Girl. For years, outside of her first album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (produced by R. Kelly, who was convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking this year), Aaliyah’s music was all but absent from the internet. Thankfully, those days are in the past and music fans now have access to a catalog that was cut short far too soon. — Justin Tinsley

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.