Best Left-Field Hip Hop Albums Of 2021: Alternative Hip Hop, Experimental Hip Hop, Abstract Hip Hop, Industrial Hip Hop, Noise Hip Hop. There’s no shortage of labels to stick on acts and albums that color outside the lines of mainstream or traditional Hip Hop. On this list, you will find 25 excellent left-field Hip Hop albums released this year, taken from our lists with The Best Hip Hop Albums Of 2021 and Best Hip Hop Albums Of 2021 – The Honorable Mentions. So here goes, in no particular order: the best left-field Hip Hop albums of 2021 (so far, no doubt changes will be made before the year is over). Which is your favorite album from this selection? Are there albums missing that should have been mentioned here? Share your thoughts in the comments!
L'Orange & Namir Blade - Imaginary Everything
Seattle-based producer L’Orange and Nashville rapper Namir Blade teamed up for Imaginary Everything, their first album together. The album comes on the heels of Blade’s breakthrough 2020 album, Aphelion’s Traveling Circus, and L’Orange’s Marlowe 2, his second collaborative album with Solemn Brigham – one of our favorite albums of 2020.
Much like Solemn Brigham, Namir Blade has a unique voice, with a quirky and erratic sing-song type flow – and L’Orange’s psychedelic and dusty boom-bap beats bring out the best in Namir Blade (just as his production worked perfectly for Solemn Brigham on the two Marlowe albums). Imaginary Everything contains some of Blade’s most interesting writing yet, and L’Oranges instrumentals are the best he got to work with up to now. Appearances from Quelle Chris, Marlowe, Fly Anakin, and Jordan Webb help round out what is another quite excellent L’Orange project – hopefully, the first in a series of collaborations with Namir Blade.
Ka - A Martyr's Reward
A Martyr’s Reward is Brownsville, NYC emcee/producer Ka’s 8th studio album (the 6th as Ka), following on the heels of 2020’s Descendants Of Cain. Descendants Of Cain is a top-5 album of 2020, and his other masterpieces The Night’s Gambit (2013) and Honor Killed The Samurai (2016) are among the best Hip Hop albums released in the 2010s.
Ka’s pen game is among the most refined in the game, he always comes with beautifully crafted poetic lyrics, aesthetic metaphors, brooding imagery, and incredible rhyme schemes. A Martyr’s Reward is no different: this is another amazing Ka project, built on his signature minimalistic instrumentals that serve to give room to his hushed hoarse flow and his intricate wordplay. The narrative this time is centered around his own life, making this one his most personal album to date. Just like on his previous efforts, on A Martyr’s Reward there’s a strong focus on ambiance and sound, and it may take many listens to really pick up on all Ka’s lyrical subtleties and hidden meanings – as always there’s a lot to unpack in his content. Ka’s music is an acquired taste, those with an ear for atmospheric instrumentals and true lyricism will know to cop this one though.
Killah Priest - Lord Sun Heavy Mental 1.1
Heavy Mental (1998), Elizabeth (2009), The Psychic World of Walter Reed (2013), and Planet Of The Gods (2015) are the standouts in Wu-Tang Clan affiliate and Sunz Of Man member Killah Priest’s catalog – along with the two LPs he released in 2020. Rocket To Nebula (#15 on our top 60 Hip Hop albums of 2020 list) is a left-field masterpiece, and The Third Eye In Technicolor (#18) is not far behind.
Exactly 23 years after the release of his debut solo album Heavy Mental, Killah Priest comes with Lord Sun Heavy Mental 1.1. Similar to Rocket To Nebula, the instrumentals on Lord Sun Heavy Mental 1.1 are ethereal and often drumless – and even more experimental at times. Killah Priest’s dense stream-of-consciousness bars about religion, history, mythology, spiritualism, science, philosophy, esotericism, extraterrestrialism, and other such topics, are delivered in a powerful spoken-word type delivery. Killah Priest’s music has always been an acquired taste, and this project certainly is – but those with the patience and capacity to surrender to his lyrical style, open themselves to his content, and adapt to the instrumentals, will find a lot enjoy on Lord Sun Heavy Mental 1.1.
With this album, Killah Priest continues his winning streak. Lord Sun Heavy Mental 1.1 is another absorbing Killah Priest listen that further cements his status as one of Hip Hop’s best – albeit unsung – writers.
Pink Siifu - GUMBO'!
Pink Siifu is one of the more interesting figures in today’s underground Hip Hop, always pushing genre boundaries with experimentation and forward-thinking ideas. With GUMBO’! Siifu continues this dynamic vision, like always pulling from varied sources of musical and thematic inspiration to provide a collage of sounds, mixing ingredients like in a good bowl of gumbo. Pink Siifu brought on a host of guest vocalists and producers to add to his musical stew – Big Rube, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Maxo, The Alchemist, and DJ Harrison most notable among them. GUMBO’! is more chilled out than last year’s hard-nosed electronic punk-rap banger NEGRO, and more accessible because of it – despite the experimental vibes that permeate every aspect of the album. Strong jazz, neo-soul, and funk influences, combined with noise rock, ambient, and plunderphonics, all of it laced with Dungeon Family-inspired Southern Hip Hop sounds make for a unique record – another strong addition to Pink Siifu’s catalog.
Noyz82 - Blade Runner Basquiat
Blade Runner Basquiat is a great project that will pass way under most people’s radars, unfortunately. This is one of today’s many independently released projects that are suffering from a total lack of marketing and promotion – even the artists themselves sometimes don’t seem to be making much of an effort to get their music noticed. You will not find projects like this one if you’re not willing to dig deep. NYC-based rapper/producer Noyz82 almost doesn’t have much of an online presence, so it’s up to people to stumble upon his Bandcamp page. Often it’s not a bad thing music is hard to find, but in this case, it’s a shame – Blade Runner Basquiat is way too good to stay unnoticed.
Blade Runner Basquiat is Noyz82’s first full-length presentation, about which he stated: “10 songs dealing with exposing my demons, flaws, lamenting on my successes and failures as a human…all while being a narcissistic pompous a**hole talking the biggest sh*t in the only way I know how.” Noyz82’s bars and flows are dope enough, but it’s his beats that steal the show here – the production on Blade Runner Basquiat is superb. Deliciously dark and atmospheric, with bass-heavy beats and slightly experimental vibes – Noyz82 comes with a unique own sound you shouldn’t sleep on.
Bolt Seminar - Bolt Seminar
Bolt Seminar is a self-titled collaborative album from Swiss producer John Sarastro and Brooklyn-based emcee Dell Wells. Bolt Seminar offers 40 minutes of edgy, slightly experimental boom-bap – reminiscent of the kind of Hip Hop that was released on El-P‘s iconic Def Jux label. Let’s hope this collaboration isn’t a one-off – we’d sure like to hear more Bolt Seminar music.
Dark Time Sunshine - LORE
Seattle-based alternative Hip Hop duo Dark Time Sunshine – rapper Onry Ozzborn and producer Zavala – return after a 9-year hiatus with LORE, their third full-length studio album together. Their last collaborative album Anx ranks on our top 40 Hip Hop albums of 2012 list, and despite such a long time between DTS projects, there’s been no drop-off in the level of quality. Like Anx, LORE is an excellent album. Arguably slightly more accessible than Anx was, LORE still is left-field enough to stand apart from today’s crowd of generic rap and Hip Hop releases.
Zavala’s lush instrumentals perfectly synergize with Onry Ozzborn’s clever wordplay, and a well-chosen roster of featured artists – Ceschi, R.A.P. Ferreira (fka Milo), Homeboy Sandman, and Hail Mary Mallon (Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic & DJ Big Wiz) – round out LORE, offering some welcome variation to Onry Ozzborn’s brooding conversational-rap style. LORE offers 46 minutes of intelligent alt-Hip Hop, a great project well-suited for the surreal times we are currently living in.
Passalacqua - Passalacqua LP
Passalacqua is a Detroit indie alt-rap duo consisting of emcees Blaksmith and Mister. Passalacqua LP is the culmination of a ten-year partnership – ten years during which the duo dropped a number of great projects, but arguably none as good as this one. The genre-boundaries pushing Passalacqua LP is unlike any other Hip Hop album you will come across this year. Produced in its entirety by fellow Detroitian Zach Shipps, this album is deeply layered musically as well as lyrically – there’s nothing generic about this project. Not for everybody, but listeners with an appreciation for beautifully crafted left-field Hip Hop will find a keeper in Passalacqua LP.
EvillDewer - ANOMIA
ANOMIA by producer EvillDewer is one of the weirdest and most unique albums you’ll hear this year. ANOMIA is a delicious presentation of experimental psychedelic instrumentals, with vocals from underground spitters like SPNDA, Bloo, Chris Crack, Koncept Jackson, Vic Spencer, AJ Suede, Rome Streetz, and Estee Nack on about half of the tracks. “Espiritismo” featuring Rome Streetz, Chris Crack, and Estee Nack is a stand-out, but the strength of this project is its consistency and its ability to captivate from beginning to end thanks to the hypnotic dream-like soundscapes it is composed of. ANOMIA is a slow burner, an album that gets better with each repeated listen. Don’t sleep on ANOMIA.
Happy Tooth - The Laughter's Rehearsed
Columbus-based artist Happy Tooth is half of a duo that dropped one of the best left-field Hip Hop albums of last year: Dug & Happy Tooth’s The Signal Glittering Inside The Storm. For The Laughter’s Rehearsed Happy Tooth teamed up with producer Bum Theory, and the result is another eclectic mix of musical and lyrical styles. Bum Theory deftly incorporates indie-rock, soul, and funk influences into his beats and Happy Tooth navigates the soundscapes with lots of versatility – going from rapping to singing to spoken-word without missing a beat. This project is not for everyone, but those with a taste for an alternative Hip Hop sound will be well pleased with The Laughter’s Rehearsed.
Big Flowers - Big Smile
Big Smile is an album for a niche audience – those with a taste for experimental and dusty lo-fi Hip Hop, with distorted stream-of-consciousness type vocals will find a lot to enjoy here. Fans of more traditional or mainstream kinds of Hip Hop may want to skip this one.
Backxwash - I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES
Zambian Canadian trans artist Backxwash’s bold and forward-thinking I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES serves harrowing raps over industrial horrorcore beats. This powerful and energetic audio-visual landscape of pain and despair features Backxwash as an empress of chaos on a path of self-destruction. The deeply atmospheric and immersive I LIE HERE is Backxwash’s best project yet – taking nothing away from her previous releases which are strong too, especially the short but hard-hitting God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out Of It (2020). I LIE HERE expands directly upon the foundation she built with that project.
The sinister and dark style on I LIE HERE serves to make Backxwash sound even more focused than she did on God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It, with an even greater sense of catharsis present. Touching on topics such as gender identity, mental illness, racism, and substance abuse Backxwash’s visceral vocals hit like hammers – the unapologetic lyrical content backed by ominous beats that assault the listener’s eardrums relentlessly. Not for everybody, but those up for an abrasive listen with a strong LGBTQ+ message will find this to be an impressive album. Fans of acts like Dälek and clipping should definitely pick up I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES.
Sharkula & Mukqs - Take Caution On The Beach
Free-associative Chicago rapper Sharkula teamed up with Hausu Mountain Records producer Mukqs for Take Caution On The Beach. This is a wonderfully weird project, with quirky synth-saturated drum patterns crafted by Mukqs and stream-of-consciousness lyrics from Sharkula – his lyrical content is reminiscent of Kool Keith‘s in its bizarreness. Take Caution On The Beach is different, but intriguing.
The Hill - Receiving
The Hill is a duo from New England, consisting of Pine Hill and Winter Hill. Receiving is their debut project, and it’s unlike anything you will hear this year – no mean feat in today’s oversaturated Hip Hop market. Receiving is a concept album, following two convicts from an alien world who stage a prison break – snatching a perpetually transmitting radio communicator on their way out – seeking refuge on an obscure habitable planet far beyond the legal reach of their captors. Receiving is their transmission (the first third of a three-album-long plot).
You may have heard better beats and better emcees, but what Pine Hill and Winter Hill do here truly is something special. Receiving is an immersive experience, an album that should be taken in in a single sitting, in the same you’d experience a movie. From start to finish Receiving offers cinematic instrumentals full of atmosphere and lots of dope in-song beat-switches, complemented by compelling quasi-abstract story-telling – reminiscent in a way of Deltron’s classic Deltron 3030 album. Hip Hop listeners who get tired of all the thirteen-a-dozen albums out these days would do well to go and check this project out.
Krum - Black Lung
Harry Krum is a producer/emcee based in Dallas, Texas. Krum’s work on the boards is outstanding, the instrumentals on Black Lung are FIRE – some of the best you’ll hear this year. Krum cooked up a heady blend of psychedelic vibes and dusty but crisp boom-bap beats laced with some exquisite sampling – reminiscent even of the best work from icons like Madlib and MF DOOM.
The strength of Black Lung is its consistency as well as its thematic and musical cohesiveness – which is bolstered even further by the quality of the vocalists Krum recruited. Black Lung features contributions from Tanya Morgan, Theory Hazit, Propaganda, Derek Minor, JGivens, Ozay Moore, Sivion, Solemn Brigham, Manchild, Sareem Poems, Stik Figa, Heath McNease, Copywrite, Pigeon John, Jabee, Headkrack, Sintax the Terrific, and Freddie Bruno – a selection of excellent emcees whose vocals prove perfectly suited to go with Krum’s organic production.
“Ultra Mag” with Solemn Brigham is one of the highlights on Black Lung, his voice is one of the most unique ones in contemporary Hip Hop. In fact, the whole Black Lung album feels similar in many ways to Marlowe 2 – the excellent album (#3 on our best of 2020 list) Solemn Brigham did last year with producer L’Orange – likening Black Lung to Marlowe 2 is a strong recommendation, of course. Other stand-outs on Black Lung include “Danger Bag” with Theory Hazit, “Uptown Eyes Wide” with Sareem Poems, “Not One Thing” with Tanya Morgan, “Riddle Me This” with JGivens, and “Trials & Tribs” with Heath McNease – but there isn’t a single bad track on Black Lung.
Ca$ablanca & Cap Chino - Korea-Town
Dallas-based artists Ca$ablanca and Cap Chino are regular collaborators, the last time just a couple of months ago on Gold Front Fang$. Ca$ablanca is one of those extremely prolific artists, dropping multiple projects each year, Korea-Town is his first release in 2021. Ca$ablanca’s content is solid, as are the contributions of guests Nowaah The Flood and Meph Luciano, D.R.E Colombian Raw, and Y.N.X.716, but this album is special because of the instrumentals. Korea-Town is packed with intriguing beats crafted by Cap Chino, all slightly experimental and off-kilter – this is not a straightforward or easy listen. Korea-Town is not an album for a skim-listen, but one to give some real attention – a slow-burner that will (need to) grow on you.
Akai Solo & Navy Blue - True Sky
Hypnotic, murky, lo-fi beats crafted by Navy Blue and abstract stream-of-consciousness bars and erratic flows from Akai Solo. True Sky holds some of the best instrumentals Navy Blue ever created, and if you can get with Akai Solo’s style of rapping you should find plenty to enjoy here. Akai Solo’s style is reminiscent of billy woods in many ways – a good thing of course. This kind of left-field Hip Hop is not for everyone, but people familiar with either one of these artists will know what to expect.
Sole - MBFX
MBFX is the final chapter in the self-produced mansbestfriend series by Maine-based rapper/producer Sole – one of the founders of Anticon, the iconic avant-garde Hip Hop collective and record label. Sole’s pen game is next-level (just check a track like “Phantom Fury”), his content is thought-provoking, and the left-field instrumentals on MBFX are intriguing and captivating. Not for everybody probably, but with an ear for what comes out of this corner of Hip Hop will know not to sleep on Sole.
TekForce - Child Of The '80s
This fourth studio album from Dallas-based artist TekForce is clearly inspired by the early 80s sounds of bass-heavy 808’s and synth-heavy electronic Hip Hop, popularized by acts like Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force and Whodini. This is not just a simple throwback record attempting to copy what came before though, there’s something wholly unique to what TekForce did here. Plenty of nostalgic vibes sure, but at the same time a contemporary sense too – Child Of The ’80s is an album unlike any other you will hear this year, and it deserves a listen for that reason alone. We love Child Of The ’80s.
MIKE - Disco!
Bronx-based rapper MIKE has been flying under most people’s radars for a while now, maybe Disco! will be the project that gives him a little more of the deserved spotlight. Following strong albums such as 2020’s Weight Of The World and 2019’s Tears Of Joy, 2021’s Disco! is a confirmation of MIKE’s talent and a strengthening of his position as one of the leading artists in the lo-fi subgenre of Hip Hop.
MIKE’s experimental jazzy grooves (self-produced under his DJ Blackpower alias) and his monotone slow-flows on Disco! captivate, leaving the listener with something of an upbeat feeling despite the murkiness of the soundscapes and MIKE’s mournful tone. As always his music is an acquired taste, but Disco! is more accessible than some of his other works and feels like a pivotal work for MIKE – one that should open the door to wider recognition.
Lync Lone & Iceberg Theory - Acid Jazz
Iceberg Theory is one of the most interesting producers out there, able to come up with something different every time. The work he did on Acid Jazz is more accessible than some of this more left-field type of production – the content of this project is jazzy and smooth, the album cover should tell you a lot about what to expect. Lync Lone’s vocals are an acquired taste, but if you can get with his laid-back whispery style no doubt Acid Jazz will find its way into your best-of-2021 library.
PIRATA - PIRATA
Atoms Family members Cryptic One and Jestoneart are PIRATA. Cryptic One and Jestoneart are longtime collaborators, most notably on Cryptic One’s masterpiece The Anti-Mobius Strip Theory (2004). PIRATA is not as progressive, but it is left-field enough to be a worthy part of the Atoms Family legacy. Jestoneart atmospheric instrumentals are dope, full of delicious drum breaks, bluesy loops, and obscure samples, plus Cryptic One’s potent rhymes are entertaining. PIRATA is an accessible and smooth listen, almost hypnotic and totally immersive – this is a beautiful piece of music.
Bruiser Wolf - Dope Game Stupid
Detroit-based Bruiser Wolf’s debut LP Dope Game Stupid on Danny Brown’s freshly minted Bruiser Brigade Records label is something else. Bruiser Wolf’s voice is unique without sounding gimmicky (“Nobody sound like this, I’ve got my own sound, I’m an instrument”), his flow and delivery are like a blend of the quirky styles of Bay Area legend E-40 and Goodie Mob’s Cee-Lo Green, only turned up to eleven. Bruiser Wolf’s weird style will no doubt be an immediate turn-off for some, but those who can get with his oddities will consider Dope Game Stupid a keeper.
Dope Game Stupid is incredibly well-written, with a constant barrage of introspective as well as humorous metaphors and similes detailing Bruiser Wolf’s life in Detroit, all of it backed by excellent production from front to back. Label boss Danny Brown jumps on “I’m An Instrument” with a killer performance for which is one of the stand-out tracks. Other memorable songs include “Dope Game Stupid”, “Use Me (I’m Dope)”, “Whip Test”, “Syndicate”, and the personal and poignant “Momma Was A Dopefiend”.
The idiosyncratic Dope Game Stupid is off-the-wall and unpredictable but totally engaging – a project that has us excited to see where Bruiser Wolf will go next.
Killah Priest - Summer End Cafe
Summer End Cafe is the fourth full-length solo album Killah Priest released in less than two years, and it’s another ‘weird’ one. Killah Priest has always been one for a-typical lyrical content, but especially on his last four albums he clearly went for a different sound: experimenting with often drumless instrumentals while leaving behind the bass-heavy beats prevalent on his earlier projects. Summer End Cafe has something of everything we’ve come to know from Killah Priest. There are a couple of Wu-flavored bangers (like “95 Bodega” and “Vapor”), drumless tracks with oddball samples (“Lady Barbara” and “The Final Cup”, among others), wonderfully weird storytelling (especially “Wimbledon 1936”), and most songs laced with KP’s usual esoteric ramblings. There are a couple of headscratchers too (“Cafe Fling” most notably), but overall Summer End Cafe is another great Killah Priest project – not his best, but still better and way more interesting than the thirteen to a dozen albums most other artists are content to keep releasing. At this point, considering his longevity and his excellent catalog, it is safe to say Killah Priest is a Hip Hop monument – one of our favorite artists of all time in any case.
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram
Armand Hammer is a duo consisting of experimental Hip Hop titans billy woods and ELUCID. billy woods is one of the most consistent artists in contemporary Hip Hop. He has five solo albums on our top 150 Hip Hop albums of the 2010s list – History Will Absolve Me (2012), Dour Candy (2013), Today, I Wrote Nothing (2015), Known Unknowns (2017), and Hiding Places (2019), along with three Armand Hammer albums – Race Music (2013), Rome (2017), and Paraffin (2018) – making billy woods our MVP of the 2010s. The 2020s started off strong for him too – with Armand Hammer’s 2020 album Shrines, and BRASS, billy woods’ collaboration with experimental musician and poet Moor Mother. Both Shrines and BRASS rank high on our best of 2020 list. ELUCID had a strong year as well, with the excellent Don’t Play It Straight, an experimental collaborative project with The Lasso.
And now we have Haram – for which Armand Hammer hooked up with producer extraordinaire The Alchemist. This is what the blurb says about the album: “Haram is a mercurial collaboration between incendiary rap duo Armand Hammer, and living legend The Alchemist. For the first time ELUCID and billy woods have crafted an album with a single producer and the result is extraordinary. With their unmatched penchant for stirring imagery and incisive storytelling, the two rappers dive into an ocean of Alchemist’s creation: warmly inviting on the surface, black and bone-crushingly cold at depth. Haram is a collection of the profane and the pure; a reminder that that which is forbidden is also sacrosanct.
The artists are joined by their friends and fellow travelers on this journey. KAYANA’s golden voice ups the wattage on “Black Sunlight,” while Fielded’s sultry alto gets chopped and screwed on “Aubergine”. Earl Sweatshirt makes a sun-soaked appearance, while Curly Castro and Amani mix like ice and salt on Brooklyn sidewalks, and Quelle Chris, as always, finds a pocket all his own. Still, there is a natural rapport that belies the New York-to-Los Angeles-and-back nature of the project, allowing Haram to be more than the sum of its parts, however impressive those parts may be. This isn’t just the genre’s most insistent contemporary voices paired with arguably its best producer. This is when you buy a beautiful house only to discover, hidden behind a heavy bookcase, a stairway twisting up and away into the darkness.”
Now, the question is: is Haram on par with billy woods’ and Armand Hammer’s earlier releases? The answer is: yes, Haram 100% met expectations – it may even one-up the stellar Paraffin as Armand Hammer’s best work yet. On Haram, the Islamic term meaning “forbidden”, billy woods and ELUCID explore all kinds of taboos – in their own cryptic ways. As always, it takes some effort on the part of the listener to penetrate the dense poetics penned by billy woods and ELUCID – there’s is so much to unpack and to think about here, it gives Haram endless replay value.
The Alchemist’s work on the boards arguably makes Haram a little more accessible than the four previous Armand Hammer albums are, but his atmospheric instrumentals are left-field enough to suit billy woods and ELUCID avant-garde rhyming. This is The Alchemist’s finest music in a while, even better than his much-lauded work on Freddie Gibb’s Alfredo of last year – in fact, we will go as far as to say The Alchemist crafted a masterpiece here.
Stand-outs include “Falling Out The Sky”, with some incredible lyrical imagery also from guest rapper Earl Sweatshirt, “Wishing Bad”, “Chicharonnes”, with a bone-chilling instrumental over which billy woods and Quelle Chris tackle police violence and BLM, likening the whole culture to pigs on a spit roast, and “Stonefruit”, with a jaw-dropping last verse from billy woods to close the album out on a high note. Besides these 4 stand-outs, there are no weak tracks on Haram – everything on the album is well-thought-out and perfectly executed – even the gruesome album cover which serves to enhance the mood of the music, in an in-your-face kind of way, with no hint of artificial coolness. Haram is a confirmation of Armand Hammer’s status as one of the most intriguing and most consistent duos in contemporary Hip Hop, and it is the first AOTY-contender released in 2021.