The Best Songs of 2021

The Complex Music staff ranks the 50 best songs of 2021, including Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar's "Family Ties," Doja Cat and SZA's "Kiss Me More" and more.

Complex's 50 Best Songs of 2021
Complex Original

Complex Original

Complex's 50 Best Songs of 2021

We ranked the year’s 50 best albums earlier this month, and now it’s time to dig into the 50 best songs. Putting a list like this together is never an easy task, but in a year like 2021, when so many artists finally released music after holding onto it in the early stages of the pandemic, it was even more difficult. Sifting through a massive collection of songs, we set out to select the most essential moments from each of the subgenres we cover on a daily basis at Complex Music, including releases from rising stars and A-listers alike.

Some of 2021’s best songs were introduced to the world in moments of spectacle, like Kanye West’s Donda listening sessions this summer. Other songs had slower, more organic paths to success, like Capella Grey’s “Gyalis” and Nardo Wick’s “Who Want Smoke??” Some tracks were inescapable, like Doja Cat and SZA’s massive radio hit “Kiss Me More,” and others resonated with more niche audiences, like Mavi’s “Time Travel.” All together, this list doubles as a soundtrack for the year, representing the Complex Music staff’s favorite songs over the past 12 months. These are Complex’s picks for the 50 best songs of 2021.

50. Mavi, "Time Travel"

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Album: End of the Earth

Producer: Aloisius

“I can’t write all the time, cause I can’t lie,” Mavi says on “Time Travel,” challenging one of rap’s sacred cows. While it’s fine for artists to depict what they want, Mavi’s introspective, brilliantly crafted raps aren’t concocted, they’re simply emitted. The Charlotte rhymer’s creation is so inherent, he can’t even place it to brand it. It’s “that shit that we ride to, that skin you travel time through.” It’s that, “I’m scared of my brother ’cause he just like me.” Like so much of Mavi’s work, “Time Travel” is brilliantly unconcerned with definition, and more focused on internal excavation. —Andre Gee

49. IDK f/ Westside Gunn, MF DOOM, & Jay Electronica, "RED"

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Album: USee4Yourself

Producers: Blue Rondo, IDK, Illingsworth, Obi Nwadije

IDK’s USee4Yourself is defined by its ambition, and “Red” is one of the clear highlights. The DMV rhymer got Westside Gunn and Jay Electronica together to tell a story where “the rich kids get all the girls and all the ass, while the broke boys walk with the world, kickin’ they back” over a beguiling sample seemingly culled from parlor music. As if that wasn’t enough for an album standout, IDK bedrocked the track with the presence of the late, great MF DOOM, who characteristically spoke a mouthful in just a couple bars: “Showboatin’, gettin’ greedier/ Doin’ shows for fans on social media.” He’s still chastising Rapp Snitches from the great beyond. —Andre Gee

48. Monaleo, "Beatin Down Yo Block"

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Album: N/A

Producer: Merion Krazy

“Beating Down Yo Block” is a fiesty record from Monaleo that finds Houston’s rising star flexing on her ex and haters. Her bars are aggressive and self-assured, as she raps, “I don’t fuck with bitches, we not friends and we not pals/ Beating down yo block, taking niggas from they gals,” over a punchy Merion Krazy-produced beat. Monaleo’s rowdiness is infectious, giving the track an addictive quality. Houston is birthing some of the hottest new talent to watch right now, and Monaleo is one of them. —Jessica McKinney

47. Duke Deuce f/ Offset, "Gangsta Party"

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Album: Duke Nukem

Producers: Ayoza

Every rapper should wake up like Offset, who hops out of bed to rip apart any song that he gets the chance to breathe on. On “Gangsta Party,” it sounds like he switched his fitted hat from the front to the back so he could get even closer to the microphone and grit viciously about being a shark and eating a whale. That’s not even all of it. For the length of a minute, he rips the beat to shreds with a flurry of ad-libs. And Memphis star Duke Deuce more than keeps up with him, delivering a lethal verse of his own, and giving us a catchy, vivacious hook. This is a heater. —Trey Alston

46. Saweetie f/ Doja Cat, "Best Friend"

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Album: Pretty Bitch Music

Producers: Dr. Luke, Rocco Did It Again!

“Best Friend” became a major hit on radio and TikTok this year—and with good reason. The combination of the catchy hook and the uptempo beat makes for an irresistibly catchy song, and both Saweetie and Doja Cat deliver memorable vocal performances. Saweetie, who knows the power of social media, also launched the Best Friend challenge, which helped the song become an even more inescapable force. We loved every minute of it. Both of these artists have very bright futures ahead. —Dayna Haffenden

45. Nas, "Death Row East"

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Album: King’s Disease II

Producers: Hit-Boy, Corbett

By now, countless people have shared their version of what happened in ‘96 between Nas and Tupac in Bryant Park. But 2021 gave us the most important perspective we could get at this point: Nas’. Over a mafioso beat that Hit-Boy has said he ideated as something Tupac would rap over, Nas tells the story of a “buncha ghetto superstars really down to lose it all” before they peaced it out. Nas’ trip down memory lane takes us back to one of the most infamous eras of rap history, and reaffirmed his “Got Urself A Gun” proclamation that “me and 2Pac were soldiers of the same struggle.” —Andre Gee

44. Summer Walker f/ JT, "Ex for a Reason"

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Album: Still Over It

Producers: Sean Garrett, Buddah Bless, Boobie, Jah Whittingham, Summer Walker, Bubbles Renee, LVRN, Lisa McCall

“Ex for a Reason” is one of those sleeper hits, where it might not hit you just how good it is until the third or fourth listen. Though the track begins in the vein of Summer Walker’s emotive ballads, it quickly changes pace with a fun and hypnotic beat. Summer is unwavering and flippant as she addresses her lover’s ex and threatens violence if she doesn’t back off of her current relationship. JT of the City Girls provides a danceable break as she raps, “You his ex for a reason, so ain’t no motherfuckin’ reason to be reasonable.” Still Over It has plenty of those intense relationship cuts, but “Ex for a Reason” is an exciting anthem that captures another side of Summer. —Jessica McKinney

43. Vince Staples, "Are You With That?"

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Album: Vince Staples

Producers: Kenny Beats, Reske

The beauty of Vince Staples’ self-titled album is that all 10 of the songs are of equal quality. You can safely put it on and let every song play from start to finish without skipping anything, because each track has a purpose, and they all flow seamlessly from one to the next. That being said, this is a “best songs” list, so if we need to single one out from the others, it’s got to be the opener, “Are You With That?” It sets the tone for the whole album, as Vince floats two deceptively melodic verses and a hook over a Kenny Beats and Reske-produced beat, reminiscing on his early days running around Long Beach, while being careful not to overly romanticize them. It’s a perfect intro for one of 2021’s best rap albums. —Eric Skelton

42. Conway the Machine f/ J.I.D & Ludacris, "Scatterbrain"

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Album: La Maquina

Producers: Don Cannon, Demond Price, Cristopher Bridges, Destin Route, Cubeatz

Why is Conway so confident about going up against Jim Jones or any other MC? Because he’s battle-tested, most recently evidenced by “Scatter Brain” from his La Maquina project. On paper, all three artists’ reputations cued to a monster: two lyricists who’ve been fighting it out with rap’s best for the past couple years, and a rap legend known for show-stealing features. We got what we expected here over the playful Don Cannon beat. The average artist could’ve let the beguiling sample and piano play carry them, but all three rappers sought to butcher the beat. Fans will debate who got who on this one for years, which is why it was a shoo-in for the list. —Andre Gee

41. Freddie Gibbs f/ Schoolboy Q, "Gang Signs"

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Album: N/A

Producers: FaxxOnly, Pilgrim

Ah, the beauty of suave rap. When you get two of the smoothest rappers together on the same track, you know you’re in for a treat, and both Freddie Gibbs and Schoolboy Q deliver on “Gang Signs.” Horns murmur and bass whispers while the two rappers calmly paint pictures of streets-induced anxiety, including lines about still being strapped at the Grammys. If they keep delivering songs like this, they’ll each be receiving plenty more award show invitations in the future. —Trey Alston

40. Earl Sweatshirt, "2010"

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Album: N/A

Producer: Black Noi$e

Earl Sweatshirt preserved his blog era rapping prowess in amber and allowed it to crystallize for over a decade, experimenting with different flows in the interim. Reminding us just how sharp of a lyricist he is, Earl’s Black Noi$e-produced “2010” finds him rapping his ass off in a way we haven’t heard in a while, with wicked double entendres like, “Where seven make a three, turn a ten by law,” combining police radio codes and simple arithmetic for an elite bar. As we enter 2022, hopefully Earl will deliver more tracks like “2010” to remind everyone how elite of a rapper he really is. —Jordan Rose

39. Snoh Aalegra, "Lost You"

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Album: Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies

Producers: No ID, Maneesh 

The lead single for Snoh Aalegra’s latest album, Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies, “Lost You” is a fan-favorite about how distance makes the heart grow fonder, even if the subject of that affection is undeserving of it. Similar to her 2017 track “Time,” this song sounds like something an artist like Drake would sample for a lofty outro about a regretful love lost. The way Snoh’s airy voice melts the lyrics of “Lost You” into black and white is what separates it from other R&B gems. Snoh has been paving her own lane in the genre by creating a unique sound, and “Lost You” is a golden example of that. —Jordan Rose

38. Isaiah Rashad f/ Juicy J & Project Pat, "RIP Young" Remix

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Album: The House Is Burning

Producer: Kal Banx

Isaiah Rashad is beloved as a Tennessee rapper who stays true to the region’s melodic, 808-heavy sound but imbues it with introspection, humility, and flourishes. That’s why it was so easy for Memphis legends Juicy J and Project Pat to seamlessly fit on the remix to “RIP Young,” the smooth standout from his long-awaited The House Is Burning. Isaiah leads off with a melodic verse while Project Pat follows up with a thundering 16 full of the storytelling and vocal inflections that make him a rap legend. Juicy J closes off with a braggadocious verse that balances out the track as an impressive cross-generational link-up. —Andre Gee

37. Giveon, "For Tonight"

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Album: N/A

Producers: Sevn Thomas, Jahaan Sweet, Akeel Henry

Giveon is in the business of making timeless music. Since he first emerged with songs like “Heartbreak Anniversary,” he’s made his mark with releases that flatten the perception of time. Instead of attaching themselves to a specific moment, they sound like yesterday and tomorrow and everywhere in between, all at once. “For Tonight,” a single from his forthcoming debut album, embodies that quality. If you hopped in a time machine, went back several decades, and played it at your grandparents’ wedding, no one would bat an eye. Similarly, if you put it on at a party 60 years from now, it would fit in just as naturally. Unlike some of the other songs on this list, it transcends current trends. It’ll live beyond any viral gimmick or algorithmic quirk, much like the artist who made it. At this point, it’s inevitable: Giveon is a superstar who will be making songs that stand the test of time for decades. —Eric Skelton

36. Taylor Swift, "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault)"

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Album: Red (Taylor’s Version)

Producers: Jack Antonoff, Taylor Swift

With the release of Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version), the superstar untucked a surprise years in the making: an extended version of her own magnum opus “All Too Well” that surpasses the original. “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” rounds out the story told back in 2012, while delivering some new scathing blows that cut even deeper years later. The parting shot, “I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age,” is 2021’s “so casually cruel in the name of being honest,” proving Taylor’s ability to turn a phrase and reverberate heartbreak in a whole new decade. The song clocks in at 10 minutes and 13 seconds, making it the longest No. 1 hit in history. However, the power ballad feels like less of a slow burn and moreso a musical that moves from scene to scene. The familiar bridge, which has become a measuring stick for all modern pop love songs, takes up an act while a new verse rescued from the cutting room floor takes up another. “All Too Well” is Taylor Swift’s ultimate offering, encapsulating her gifts as a songwriter. —Waiss Aramesh

35. Jazmine Sullivan f/ H.E.R., "Girl Like Me"

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Album: Heaux Tales

Producer: Bongo ByTheWay

Sometimes the best things in life are saved for last. Sitting at No. 14 on Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales, “Girl Like Me” is a vulnerable song that most people can relate to, as she reflects on failed relationships and feelings of loneliness in a raspy vibrato. The lyrics ring true to the emotions of dating in today’s world (“I knew it was real when you blocked me”) and towards the end of the track, Sullivan and H.E.R. come to an understanding that relationships don’t always last forever. The guitar in the background creates a calming feeling, though, as you realize the eye of the storm is finally gone. Hearing songs like “Girl Like Me” makes these inevitable life challenges just a little bit easier. —Dayna Haffenden

34. Sleepy Hallow, "2055"

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Album: Still Sleep?

Producers: Great John, Uv Killen Em

Sleepy Hallow seems uninterested in the novelties that come with rap fame, and that’s because he’s from a different timeline. “2055” finds the Brooklyn rapper reflecting on his past traumas while he simultaneously floats back to his purple-hazed future. “Real niggas cry blood, hope my kid never try drugs/ All I wanted was some love, would that trade for a gun,” Hallow drowsily croons, while reflecting on his challenging upbringing. Then he brings us back to the present, where the 21-year-old rapper is already jaded by the industry, rapping, “Big pack on me now, ‘member back then I was fucked up, huh/ I don’t really want friends, everybody fake, I don’t got trust.” Sleepy’s focus is always on what’s ahead, and “2055” is another example of how he’s still designing his future, regardless of what’s happened in the past. —Jordan Rose

33. Remble, "Gordon R Freestyle"

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Album: It’s Remble

Producer: Laudiano 

Remble is one of the rap game’s most interesting characters, and it only took one quotable-laden freestyle to get there. “Gordon R Freestyle” went viral earlier this year, not only for a delivery that social media users joked sounds like “MLA format,” but for doing so with an onslaught of witty, hilarious lyrics that made it a quintessential moment of 2021 rap surreality. The LA rapper coined himself the progenitor of “clarity rap.” YouTube is full of people who think they’re the first to recite nerdy, ironic renditions of violent rap lyrics for giggles, but while so many of those moments feel like outsider mockery, “Gordon R” is a brilliant spin on so-called gangsta rap. He’s got his 30-clip loaded with tweet-worthy bars like, “If you don’t snatch his chain now, you might miss it,” and “a pen and pad with a smile, you like snitchin.’” What do we do when the spectre of violence shrouds us all without any end in sight? Some of us learn to just have fun with it. —Andre Gee

32. Lil Baby f/ EST Gee, "Real As It Gets"

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Album: N/A

Producers: ATL Jacob, DY Krazy

Lil Baby is undeniably in his bag on the menacing “Real As It Gets,” laying down dizzying bars with fluidity and precision as he declares his dominance, rapping, “It’s the real one you know that I’m taxin’/ Get the ball, Imma score or I’m passing.” Elsewhere on the chorus, he flexes his status, spitting, “Don’t get in hatin’ shit, I’m on some greatest shit/ My people proud, I’m as real as it gets.” EST Gee is a welcome addition, delivering hard-hitting bars about credibility in his hood and bringing even more grit to the track. Lil Baby continues to rise the ranks among rap’s elite, and songs like this prove why EST Gee has a very bright future as well. —Jessica McKinney

31. Pop Smoke f/ Bizzy Banks, "30"

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Album: Faith

Producer: Rico Beats

“30” is a new version of Bizzy Banks’ 2019 single of the same name, updated for Pop Smoke’s second posthumous album, Faith. Over a dark and menacing beat, reproduced by Rico Beats, Bizzy sounds the alarm with a streak of lethal adlibs before unravelling into a dizzying verse about gunplay and other street activity. “I walk with that lil’ body but I back out that big body if you speak on my name,” Bizzy spits. The track features a new, posthumous verse from Pop Smoke, who aggressively raps about similar themes in his trademark growl. “44 Bulldog, make ‘em get back (Back)/ I ain’t with the talk or the chit-chat (Not at all),” Pop spits. “30” is one the tracks from Pop’s posthumous records that sounds most in line with how he was first introduced to the world. —Jessica McKinney

30. Polo G, "Rapstar"

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Album: Hall of Fame

Producers: Einer Bankz, Synco

Polo G is at his best when he puts his vulnerability on full display, and on “Rapstar,” he doesn’t shy away from broaching topics like getting high to hide his insecurities, the senseless murders he’s witnessed, or being overwhelmed by anxiety. Anchored by collaborator Einer Bankz’s catchy ukulele, “Rapstar” is a hit song in which the Chicago rapper confronts his feelings about fame, wealth, relationships, and mental health. “When they ask if I’m OK, it just make everything seem worse/ Try and explain your feelings, sound like something you rehearsed,” he raps. Polo G is realistic about the price that comes with fame and fortune, and it’s this honesty (and songwriting ability) that helps make him such a special talent. —Jessica McKinney

29. Justin Bieber f/ Daniel Caesar & Giveon, "Peaches"

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Album: Justice

Producers: HARV, Shndo

“Peaches” is a feel-good record with a melody that will be stuck in your head for days. And it’s versatile: you can throw it on during a kickback, a long cruise with the top down, or a day at the beach. The Justice single relishes in the simple joys of notable regions around the US. “I got my peaches out in Georgia—oh, yeah, shit/ I get my weed from California—that’s that shit,” Bieber sings, his voice becoming more enthusiastic as the song continues. With help from Daniel Caesar and Giveon, “Peaches” fuses the playfulness of pop music with the soul and spirituality of R&B. It’s worth noting that Bieber also shared a bluesy rendition of the song during his NPR Tiny Desk performance, which deserves some recognition of its own. Nevertheless, the official version of “Peaches” is the standout song on Justice and it marks a high point in the latest chapter of JB’s career. —Jessica McKinney

28. Juice WRLD f/ Young Thug, "Bad Boy"

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Album: N/A

Producer: Pi’erre Bourne

Cut from a similar stylistic cloth, Juice WRLD and Young Thug’s twisting voices lay at the core of “Bad Boy,” a song that serves as a burning reminder of what the world is missing without Juice here to push his exceptional melodies to new and exciting places. Both fast and furious, the duo zip around each other over a rave-ready beat, practically egging each other on to make each bar bigger and better than the last. Long Live Juice. —Trey Alston

27. B-Lovee, "My Everything"

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Album: My Everything

Producer: Cash Cobain

The Bronx drill scene is thriving, and that’s in large part thanks to B-Lovee and songs like “My Everything.” He excels on tracks where he uses nostalgic samples and fuses them with his patented BX charisma to create a fresh and exciting sound, and “My Everything” is a reflection of that ability. Borrowing the soulful cooing of Mary J. Blige’s “Everything” to assist Cash Cobain’s drill production, B-Lovee makes a street love song that also happens to be doing numbers on TikTok. Now two remixes deep, “My Everything” is another shining example of how the New York drill scene continues to grow and evolve. —Jordan Rose

26. Internet Money f/ Don Toliver, Lil Uzi Vert, & Gunna "His & Hers"

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Album: N/A

Producers: Taz Taylor, Nick Mira, Alec Wigdhal, Cxdy, Pharaoh Vice

Who said lightning can’t strike twice? Last year, Internet Money’s “Lemonade” collaboration with Gunna, Don Toliver, and Nav was a massive success, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. And this year, the producer collective reunited with Gunna and Don (plus Lil Uzi Vert) for a followup of sorts called “His & Hers,” which might be even better than the first go-around. The vibe is similar, with guitar-heavy production and melodic vocals from Gunna and Don, but “His & Hers” is somehow even catchier than “Lemonade,” and Uzi’s verse is an upgrade (no disrespect to Nav, of course). It’s the kind of breezy, carefree song that sounds the best when you hear it in warm weather, so we expect this one to rack up an unfathomable amount of streams this summer. These guys have found a formula together, and it’s working extremely well. —Eric Skelton

25. Benny the Butcher, "When Tony Met Sosa"

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Album: The Plugs I Met 2

Producer: Harry Fraud

The Plugs I Met 2 was highly anticipated. After what Benny the Butcher did on his breakout project, the name carried a lot of weight. There’s precedent for revered street lyricists to shoot for mass appeal once they achieve a certain amount of notoriety, and with co-signs from the likes of Jay-Z and Drake, Benny could have done it. But he shut that shit down from the gate with “When Tony Met Sosa,” a project intro as filthy as the title implies. In short, he went off. Harry Fraud did, too, with a soaring, sax-centered sample that perfectly scores Benny’s bars like, “A voice in my eardrums tell me ‘fore the feds come/ To turn these breadcrumbs to a hedge fund.” There just aren’t many rappers talking that street shit with the vividness, skill, and finesse that Benny does, and he showed it again here. While some wait for the next great street drama to hit the big screen, we’ll be just fine with Benny’s pen. —Andre Gee

24. Lil Tjay f/ 6lack, "Calling My Phone"

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Album: Destined 2 Win

Producers: G. Ry, Bordeaux, Non Native

“Calling My Phone” is a late-night record for the broken-hearted. On the track, Lil Tjay croons about moving on from a failed relationship. “I ain’t tryna play these games no more/ I don’t wanna be textin’ your name no more/ I ain’t tryna feel this pain no more,” he sings over a distorted R&B sample. And at the core of it all, the repetition of “I can’t get you out my mind” is hypnotizing. Lil Tjay and 6lack complement each other incredibly well, as 6lack refuses to take the high road, singing, “No, you can’t wear my chain no more/ We are not a thing, can’t take no more/ Waitin’ on your king, you could wait some more.” Though some lyrics are petty, “Calling My Phone” as a whole captures the honest emotions that come with the end of a modern-day relationship, and it’s that sort of relatability that hooks you. —Jessica McKinney

23. Migos, "Straightenin"

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Album: Culture III

Producers: DJ Durel, Atake, Slime Castro, Sluzyyy, Nuki, Osiris

Leaning on a simple but hypnotic chorus and the signature Migos triplet flow, “Straightenin” captures the same hunger of the group’s early run. Over production from DJ Durel, Quavo addresses gossip concerning the rap group’s current status, rapping, “In this game, sit back be patient/ Niggas act like the gang went vacant/ Niggas act like something been taken/ Ain’t nothing but a little bit of straightenin.” Takeoff lays down a similarly thundering verse, spitting, “We were trappin’ out the spot out the basement/ Tasmanian Devil, we spin on your block.” In case you had any doubts about Migos’ ability to still deliver records that match the caliber of their mid-2010s hit, “Straightenin” proves otherwise. —Jessica McKinney

22. Meek Mill, "Intro (Hate On Me)"

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Album: Expensive Pain

Producers: Cardo, JJ, YeX

If the rap world ever comes together for a monster-sized version of the Revenge Of the Dreamers 2 sessions, there’s no question who has to be on the intro. Meek Mill has been hitting leadoff home runs for over a decade, and that trend continued in grand fashion with “Hate on Me.” It was a tenuous task to attempt breathing new life into Nas and Diddy’s “Hate Me Now” classic, but Meek barrells through any listener apprehension with a flow that weaves through the grandiose beat much like his bikes through the Philly streets. Then he swerves with a beat switch that sends the already impressive track into another stratosphere. “It’s seven on seven and I’m gettin’ better and better and better,” he rhymes near the start of the song, and it’s difficult to argue with him as he puts on a cadence clinic and exemplifies why through it all, he’s one of the rap game’s most thrilling rhymers when he’s on his A-game. —Andre Gee

21. Don Toliver, "Swangin' on Westheimer"

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Album: Life of a Don

Producers: Mario Winans, Metro Boomin

Westheimer Road is a thoroughfare in Houston, Texas, and there is no better song to listen to while traversing it than Don Toliver’s “Swangin’ on Westheimer.” Lining the ribs of the track with psychedelic strings, Toliver invites us into a galaxy of melodic hums. Long car rides are meant for reflection, and Toliver uses “Swangin’ on Westheimer” to speak about rekindling a relationship with an old flame who only calls him when they’re alone. He’s self-aware enough to notice that his vices are fueling his actions, but he has no regrets. It’s easy to throw your problems to the backseat while you’re driving down a long highway with your favorite person sitting in the passenger seat. —Jordan Rose

20. Drake f/ Rick Ross, "Lemon Pepper Freestyle"

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Album: Scary Hours 2 

Producers: Boi-1da, Austin Powerz, FNZ, Keanu Beats

Scary Hours 2 was all about Drake reminding people who he is. He sought to let people know he’s still on the throne, and one surefire way to do that is to link with Rick Ross, one of his best collaborators. Social media’s echo chamber evokes the phrase “they don’t miss” a lot, but seriously, check their catalog. It’s pristine, and “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” keeps that run going. Ross kicks things off with a typically opulent verse, but Drake takes off after him, delivering one of the finest performances of his career. It has it all. There’s big money boasting, graciousness toward Wayne, shout-outs to Toronto, and thoughtful musing that “fame is disconnected from excellence.” There’s also the way he branded parenthood with the Drake stamp, with emoji confirmations of child support and witticisms that “googly-eyed” wives at his kids’ school ask him if he knows Nicki or B. And the verse just keeps going, with slick lines like, “We want everything galore, not just Lira Galore” and “My diamonds all hittin’ like tie-dye,” as well as the sobering ponderings of what his funeral might be like. But that’s not coming anytime soon. For now, he’s still here, and capable of giving us exhibitions like “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” that fans of rap Drake wish were in even more abundance. —Andre Gee

19. Adele, "To Be Loved"

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Album: 30

Producers: Tobias Jesso Jr., Shawn Everett

In Adele’s stacked catalog of emotional exposés and confessionals, “To Be Loved” is one of the crown jewels. Using her indomitable mezzo-soprano vocal range to belt heart-wrenching lines like, “To be loved and loved at the highest count/ Means to lose all the things I can’t live without,” Adele outlines the costs of completely and unapologetically loving someone else. During her press run for 30, she said it’s a song she can never perform live because it’s too emotional. Even when she performed it from the comfort of her own home and posted it to social media before the album was released, she looked labored as she sang each word. If that doesn’t speak to the gravity and power behind this song, I don’t know what does. “To Be Loved” holds such weight because it reflects the conscious choice to sacrifice your very being in the name of love. It’s beautiful, painful, and illustrates one of the album’s core themes: authentic love comes at a cost and it never truly fades away. —Jordan Rose

18. Cardi B, "Up"

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Album: N/A

Producers: Sean Island, DJ SwanQo, DJ Prince, Yung Dza

After a months-long wait following the release of her hit single “WAP,” Cardi B returned with a bang on “Up.” Not only does she get to show off her hard-hitting delivery, the song is catchy enough to become an undeniable hit across streaming and radio. Besides, who can resist when Cardi gets in her fashion bag? Showing her appreciation for her favorite brands yet again, she spits lines like, “Man, Balenciaga Bardi back and all these bitches fucked.” Many fans interpreted the meaning of the song to be about becoming financially secure, but during an interview with Jimmy Fallon in February, Cardi joked that “Up” is simply about constipation. However you want to interpret it, the song is a hit. —Dayna Haffenden

17. Tyler, the Creator f/ 42 Dugg, "Lemonhead"

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Album: Call Me If You Get Lost

Producer: Tyler, the Creator

“Lemonhead” is a rowdy and menacing track that invites Tyler’s fanbase to embrace their wild sides, and it’s a clear standout from Call Me If You Get Lost. First, a braggadocious Tyler flaunts his material wealth, rapping in a gritty and raspy tone, “I don’t lean but my house do/ Off the hill with the mean view/ Nice house if you look out/ You can see some eagles and a few yachts.” Then 42 Dugg slides in as a complementary addition, delivering a dizzying verse of his own. Months before it dropped, Dugg teased in an interview with Complex that he and Tyler had a hit on their hands, and he sure wasn’t lying. —Jessica McKinney

16. Nicki Minaj f/ Drake & Lil Wayne, "Seeing Green"

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Album: Beam Me Up Scotty 

Producers: Kid Masterpiece, Govi

Fans probably would’ve appreciated “Seeing Green” even if all three artists phoned it in—but that’s not what happened here. Make no mistake that all three are still massive stars in their own right, but seeing the YMCMB big three together is a different energy that we don’t always get anymore. On a superficial level, they’re all compelling personalities who know how to carry a song on charisma alone, but they reminded people who they are on “Seeing Green.” That era was no fluke. The reason their collaborative résumé is so strong is the same reason they all became solo stars: They’re damn good rappers. That’s what they showed off here. Nicki joked that the other two “washed” her on the track, but she more than held her own with a braggadocious verse where she re-affirms “these bitches still my sons,” and lets the world know, “No one bitch could be my opp, that shit offends me/ It’s corporate giants and machines that went against me.” That said, Drake and Wayne did put on an incredible rap clinic, as they always do. They always get the best out of each other, knowing that even if they’ve both figuratively scored 81 before, it’s better when both of them score 40. They each dug through the drums to hit unique pockets, taking advantage of the methodical tempo to get showy. Wayne kicked it off by slithering through the epic Heather Headley sample, and Drake let us know we’re “now tuned in to the biggest ever,” before repeatedly trying to outboast his last bar. “Seeing Green” has everything we love from all three MCs, captured over a cinematic beat that’s somehow massive enough to match the moment. —Andre Gee

15. Kanye West f/ The Weeknd & Lil Baby, "Hurricane"

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Album: Donda

Producers: Kanye West, BoogzDaBeast, Mike Dean, DJ Khalil, Ronny J, Ojivolta, Cirkut, 88-Keys

How do you reinvigorate a song that’s been floating around in various forms for three years despite no official release? If you’re Kanye West, you invite two of the biggest acts in music to hop on it. The result is the final version of “Hurricane,” available on digital streaming platforms today, featuring the Weeknd and Lil Baby. Abel’s silky vocals and Baby’s standout verse garnered widespread acclaim, and despite the song being the most commercially-ready offering from Kanye in years, it doesn’t lack in introspection. Kanye’s vocal contribution isn’t long, but it packs a punch, as he raps, “Here I go with a new chick, and I know what the truth is, still playin’ after two kids.” His story is one of brutal honesty, humanizing the struggles of music’s most polarizing star. —Waiss Aramesh

14. Moneybagg Yo, "Time Today"

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Album: A Gangsta’s Pain

Producers: Real Red, YC

Four studio albums and countless mixtapes in, Moneybagg Yo is having a moment. A Gangsta’s Pain is full of hits and blunt truths, as told by one of Memphis’ brightest stars, and the already gold-certified “Time Today” stands out as a clear highlight. Moneybagg goes in, letting the doubters, the moochers, and the less talented (“the shit that you just put out, you could’ve kept, yep”) hear it. He put his bravado over a Real Red and YC beat, spending over two minutes getting a lot off his chest with intense testimony. The song got a boost from TikTok (some videos featuring the line “I don’t like n****s, I don’t like bitches/I don’t like nobody” have well over 1 million views) but that’s not the only place it’s getting traction. It even had a moment when Moneybagg walked out with Floyd Mayweather at the exhibition boxing match versus Logan Paul in early June. Fitting, considering “Time Today” is 2021’s ultimate pump-up song. Fighting a YouTuber for $50 million? Yeah, I got time today. Walking into the office? Yeah, I got time today. It works anywhere. —Waiss Aramesh

13. Olivia Rodrigo, "Good 4 U"

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Album: Sour

Producers: Daniel Nigro, Alexander 23

A sarcastic salute to an ex lover, Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” is the ultimate stamp of pop-punk’s revival in 2021. A departure from the power ballad that introduced her to the world, “Good 4 U”  is a grunge-leaning track that conduits pain into anger. It’s the best-charting song released in 2021 on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100, in part because of an audience that has embraced how endearing and authentic the music sounds. Olivia is tailor-made for a generation that rolls their eyes at the contrived. She doesn’t just record her songs, she performs how they’re meant to be felt. “[Executive producer Dan Nigro] would film me while I was singing,” Olivia told the Los Angeles Times. “I’d perform for the camera and that take would be so much better.” “Good 4 U” conveys bitterness with every humorless chuckle and exasperated sigh. At one point, Olivia almost growls through her phony best wishes that her “ex can be a better man for [his] brand new girl.” If “Driver’s License” was our introduction to Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U” cements her status as the commercial and qualitative gold standard in pop. —Waiss Aramesh

12. Drake f/ Lil Baby, "Wants and Needs"

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Album: Scary Hours 2

Producers: Cardo, Dez Wright, Noah “40” Shebib

Ever since 2018’s “Yes Indeed,” it goes without saying that Drake and Lil Baby will make a hit whenever they get together, and the proof is in the pudding with “Wants and Needs.” Over production from Cardo, Dez Wright, and 40, Drake addresses his detractors in a quick and concise fashion, rapping, “Come with a classic, they come around years later and say it’s a sleeper.” The icing on the cake, though, is Lil Baby’s verse. After effortlessly gliding onto the track to open his verse, his energy level rises as he discusses different ideas of wants and needs in life. Some of Baby’s best bars arrive when he’s feeling the most confident about his own career as he rattles off lines like, “I’m not a GOAT, but I fit the description.” At one point, he boasts, “I’m droppin’ hit after hit, I’m just chillin.” No lies detected. —Dayna Haffenden

11. Silk Sonic, "Leave the Door Open"

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Album: An Evening With Silk Sonic

Producers: Bruno Mars, Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II 

Why it took Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars so long to officially join forces, we may never know, but we’re sure glad they did. “Leave the Door Open” is a velvety debut single from the duo collectively known as Silk Sonic, and it brings to mind shag rugs and waterbed booty calls, capturing the best of ’70s nostalgia. Anchored by Anderson .Paak’s drumming, the funky instrumentation pairs wonderfully with Bruno Mars’ luxurious, buttery crooning. It’s both romantic and lusty, as the duo profess their love to their significant others. “I ain’t playin no games/ Every word that I say is coming straight from my heart/ So if you tryna lay in these arms/ I’mma leave the door open,” Bruno sings. It’s a tribute to decades past, with the best of intentions. Rarely does a new record come along that can bring together all generations, but “Leave the Door Open” does exactly that. And it’s even more rare that a song with so much of an old soul could make it all the way to the top of a list like this one—but this is no ordinary song. It has a timeless, feel-good quality with the power to unite a room full of people on a dance floor. As the world finally opens back up this summer, what more could you want than a song like “Leave the Door Open”? —Jessica McKinney

10. Nardo Wick f/ G Herbo, Lil Durk, & 21 Savage, "Who Want Smoke??"

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Album: Who Is Nardo Wick?

Producer: Emkay

“Who Want Smoke??” was already a breakout track when it was just Nardo Wick snarling over a sinister beat, but then he dropped a remix with three artists who matched his menace and they collectively crafted one of the best songs of the year. Nardo told us that G Herbo loved the track so much he wanted to jump on the original, and who can blame him? The song is buoyed by a pulsing alarm of a synth, serving as the perfect canvas for Nardo, Herbo, 21 Savage, and Lil Durk to each take on all comers and have fun with their own rendition of Nardo’s viral “what the fuck was that?” moment, which was one of the most creative lyrical theatrics of the year. Whether you’re screaming every bar on the top of your lungs, or the song’s violent depictions make it a mere guilty pleasure, it’s hard not to have some love for “Who Want Smoke??” —Andre Gee

9. J. Cole f/ 21 Savage & Morray, "My Life"

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Album: The Off-Season

Producers: Jake One, J. Cole, Wu10

J. Cole bares his soul on “My Life” as he reflects on generational demons and the struggles he’s endured on the road to success. He also contemplates the end of his career, rapping, “No weapon gon prosper that’s formin against me/ Nigga, I’m starvin’ immensely/ Know when I’m done with these songs, you gon miss me.” 21 Savage manages to keep up with Cole, matching the hunger as he delivers one of the better guest verses of his career. 21 confronts his lethal past, hoping that it doesn’t find its way to his future, spitting, “We don't participate, ain't with that squashin' shit, all we believe in is homicide I got a good heart, so I send teddy bears every time we make they mommas cry/ I pray that my past ain't ahead of me.” “My Life” wouldn’t have half the soul it possesses if it weren’t for Morray’s contribution, though, as the newcomer provides a standout chorus. J. Cole has spent much of his career walking alone, having only recently begun collaborating with other rappers on a consistent basis, but “My Life” is a perfect example of the magic that can come from putting the right people in the studio together. —Jessica McKinney

8. Capella Grey, "Gyalis"

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Album: N/A

Producer: Capella Grey

To many people, particularly those who live in New York, “Gyalis” was the song of the summer. Built around a sample of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” Capella Grey’s track was destined to be a big hit. But what makes “Gyalis” a force of its own is the Bronx artist’s ability to stack a bunch of memorable moments right on top of each other. He croons about a girl he spotted in the function, before smoothly transitioning into an effortless rap verse, weaving in a bunch of quotables. “She tryna fake like she asleep/ Swear she tried to stay the whole week/ I’m like ‘Oh nah, she gotta go,’ uh/ Ask her name, I swear I don’t even fuckin’ know,” he spits, before returning to singing on the chorus. “Gyalis” is an addictive song that’s impossible to play just once. —Jessica McKinney

7. Lil Nas X f/ Jack Harlow, "Industry Baby"

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Album: Montero

Producers: Take A Daytrip, Kanye West

Forget the controversy, the headlines, and the memes surrounding Lil Nas X’s music videos. “Industry Baby” is a certified hit on its own. Stepping further away from the country-rap sound of “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X jumps on the Kanye West and Take A Daytrip-produced track as a seductive provocateur, sing-rapping about his rising fame and success. “I ain’t lost since I began/ Funny how you said it was the end/ Then I went and did it again,” he taunts. Jack Harlow leans into his own charismatic starpower, delivering a syrupy verse with quotables like, “I didn’t peak in high school, I’m still out here gettin’ cuter.” It’s not every day you hear a song from two relative newcomers that tops the Billboard charts, but with “Industry Baby,” Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow prove why they’re leaders of the new generation. —Jessica McKinney

6. DJ Khaled f/ Lil Baby & Lil Durk, "Every Chance I Get"

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Album: Khaled Khaled 

Producers: DJ Khaled, Tay Keith

You get the feeling the elevator pitch for Lil Baby and Lil Durk’s The Voice of the Heroes project might have been somewhere along the lines of: “Let’s try to do what we did on ‘Every Chance I Get’ across 18 songs.” On the Khaled Khaled standout, the two stars rap circles around each other, spitting about things like robbers robbing deacons, preachers getting caught cheating, and bringing Lamborghini trucks to the hood. The song’s imagery could fill a storybook. Sometimes collaborations between two stars at the height of their powers don’t work out as well in reality as they do on paper, but this one more than lived up to expectations. —Trey Alston

5. Doja Cat f/ SZA, "Kiss Me More"

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Album: Planet Her

Producers: Yeti Beats, Rogét Chahayed

One of the most infectious songs of the year, full of quotables and airy ad-libs, Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” is a masterclass in disco-adjacent pop music. The track interpolates Olivia Newton-John’s megahit “Physical,” which has become a go-to source of inspiration when crafting pop smashes this decade (see: Dua Lipa’s hit of the same name). The song is light and uptempo, as Doja does a terrific job balancing singing and rapping over a catchy riff. I’m tempted to launch into Saweetie’s “something fun, something for the summertime” viral bit here, but I’ll refrain. Doja told Zane Lowe, “I want to make a song about kissing. I just thought it would be cute. That doesn’t happen too often, but just a song that’s solely about kissing.” It also doesn’t take itself too seriously. With Doja’s snappy flow, the tongue-in-cheek punchlines, and the verses that start with “I feel like fuckin’ something,” is it possible to be in a bad mood while listening to this? —Waiss Aramesh

4. Baby Keem f/ Kendrick Lamar, "Family Ties"

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Album: The Melodic Blue

Producers: Baby Keem, Cardo Got Wings, Outtatown, Roselilah, Deats, Jasper Harris, Frankie Bash

Baby Keem is one of the most impressive rookies in rap right now, and songs like “Family Ties” show just how high his ceiling is. Despite being the cousin of one of the greatest rappers on the planet, and snagging a rare Kendrick verse, Keem makes sure we all know it’s his song. The bars spill out of Keem as he delivers a brief intro, before speeding his way through one of his best vocal performances thus far. Then, ushered in with an arrangement of cascading horns, as if we were all being welcomed into the pearly gates of TDE, the man who can only be addressed with four letters enters the track and puts on an absolute clinic. Kendrick’s verse has everything longtime listeners have missed from him while he’s been away, from witty punchlines to braggadocious bars, and he somehow made the word “brother” sound like a natural tagline for any phrase for a solid two weeks. “Family Ties” is a culmination of familial blood, spiked with youthful adrenaline. It’s one of the best lyricists of our generation alongside a leader of rap’s new school, and it sounds incredible. —Jordan Rose

3. Drake f/ 21 Savage & Project Pat, "Knife Talk"

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Album: Certified Lover Boy

Producers: Metro Boomin, Peter Lee Johnson

“Knife Talk,” a standout record from Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, has it all: 21 Savage and Project Pat guest features, sinister Metro Boomin production, and a whole lot of mob talk. Savage steals the spotlight with his menacing delivery, spitting, “I’m mister body catcher, Slaughter Gang soul snatcher/ Ain’t no regular F-150, this a fuckin’ Raptor.” And Drake delivers a lethal verse of his own, equipped with the usual paranoid and disgusted bars. “Imma drop this shit and have these pussies droppin’ like some motherfuckin’ flies/ Type of nigga that can’t look me in the eyes,” he spits, followed by a dramatic “gang shit” chant from Savage. By the end of “Knife Talk” you might not know if you should be dancing or throwing your hands up and repping your hood, and it’s this duality that makes “Knife Talk” one of the most memorable tracks on CLB. —Jessica McKinney

2. Tyler, the Creator f/ YoungBoy Never Broke Again, "Wusyaname"

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Album: Call Me If You Get Lost

Producer: Tyler, the Creator

One of Tyler, the Creator’s biggest gifts is his ability to contextualize collaborators in ways people wouldn’t expect. On IGOR, he placed Playboi Carti’s baby voice over beautiful, twinkling pianos. On Flower Boy, he put a mainstream spotlight on the emerging talents of Rex Orange County. And on Call Me If You Get Lost, he shattered several long-held myths about YoungBoy Never Broke Again. Those who hadn’t bothered to dig deep into YoungBoy’s catalog may dismissed him as an artist who flooded YouTube with one-note music. Fortunately, Tyler saw more in YoungBoy. He decided to put YoungBoy on an R&B love song, and YB responded by stepping up to the plate and singing like a goddamn angel. The Louisiana rapper opens his part by crooning, “What is your name, what do you bring?” And by the end of his verse, he pulls off wild vocal runs, beautifully singing “whooooaaaooaaa” over Tyler’s soaring production. Beyond the initial surprise factor, “Wusyaname” holds its own as one of the most addictive songs of the year (Grammy voters agree), complete with an endearing verse from Tyler and some subtle Ty Dolla Sign vocal flourishes. If you’ve been waiting for a YoungBoy song you can play on a boat at sunset, this is the one, and it’s all thanks to Tyler’s one-of-a-kind vision. —Eric Skelton

1. Kanye West f/ Fivio Foreign & Playboi Carti, "Off the Grid"

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Album: Donda

Producers: Kanye West, 30 Roc, AyoAA, Ojivolta, David & Eli, Sloane

When the world heard the best song of 2021 for the first time, it wasn’t quite finished yet. On Aug. 5, Kanye West stood in the middle of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium at the second Donda listening session, as a haunting beat played. After a short intro from Kanye, Playboi Carti’s voice blasted out of the speakers and hundreds of volunteer dancers completely lost their shit, thrashing around to baby-voice lines like, “I just bought me some brand-new clothes, Dover Street Market!”

When Carti’s verse ended, Kanye got up off his makeshift mattress and started doing push-ups. Then the beat shifted. Deep, gliding bass—the signature sound of the Brooklyn drill movement—ripped through the arena, setting the stage for one of New York’s most promising stars to step up and deliver a career-defining performance. For the next 110 seconds, Fivio Foreign dug deep, letting us in on his demons, his paranoia, and the stressful tightrope walk of trying to move differently in the midst of life-changing success, before punctuating the verse by confessing, “I been tryin’ so hard not to move reckless.” As those words lingered in the air like a cliffhanger, Twitter exploded, immediately declaring it one of the best rap verses of the year. For once, it wasn’t hyperbole.

The beat continued to play, and Kanye ran around in a circle with an oversized coat draped over his body, as if a ghost was haunting the stadium. In that moment, it was unclear what was going on in Kanye’s head, but now it seems Fivio’s verse had lit a competitive fire under him, because three weeks later, Ye added a whole new verse at the end of the song. At the third listening session in Chicago, he unveiled the final version of the song, and it featured some of Kanye’s best rapping in years. Outside of one clunker bar (“I talk to God every day, that’s my bestie/ They playin’ soccer in my backyard, I think I see Messi”), Ye sounded focused, rapping about avoiding the wrong people in his life and praying that his family will never resent him, all while staying in an impressively tight pocket. 

No matter where you stand on the over-the-top theatrics of Kanye’s listening sessions this summer, you have to acknowledge that the experimental rollout produced some incredible songs. If it weren’t for the stadium sessions, a track like “Off the Grid” wouldn’t exist at all. Fivio says he and Kanye made the song inside the stadium, recording until moments before the listening session started, while fans took their seats. And Kanye might not have even made his final verse if it weren’t for a jolt of motivation after Fivio’s part went viral.

The latest chapter of Kanye’s career has been defined by his gift for funneling the emerging sounds of contemporary rap into his own universe, and then sharing that music with the world in grandiose, impossible-to-ignore ways. And he did both of those things remarkably well on “Off the Grid.” Who else would even think to pair Playboi Carti’s impressionistic raps with the hard-hitting sounds of Brooklyn drill? Who else would literally move into a stadium and tinker with an album in front of the world until it was ready? No one but Kanye would attempt these things, and only Kanye could actually pull them off. —Eric Skelton

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