The 30 Best Canadian Songs of 2021

From Drake to TOBi to Kaytranada, these are the songs that got Canada through a year where we saw a fleeting light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

The Best Canadian Songs of 2021, including Justin Bieber, Pressa, Smiley, and Amaal
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original/Kagan McLeod

The Best Canadian Songs of 2021, including Justin Bieber, Pressa, Smiley, and Amaal

If 2020 was the year the pandemic put the music industry into a state of flux, then 2021 was the year of the slight return. Venues re-opened and postponed tours resumed as the world began to somewhat go back to normal—for a while at least, before Omicron said, “What’s up?” As we headed back to concerts, clubs, and festivals, artists pushed themselves to make more music for us to laugh, cry, and dance to again. Drake finally blessed us with Certified Lover Boy and it was well worth the wait, giving us yet another iconic music video (shoutout to Kawhi’s dancing on “Way 2 Sexy”) and one of the smoothest intros he’s ever had on “Champagne Poetry.” But Drizzy aside, plenty of Canadian talent put out some of their best music yet.

While the pandemic may have delayed things, the extra time to experiment and refine their sounds allowed musicians to challenge themselves and get more bold. Many used the opportunity to celebrate: DijahSB released the bouncy, house-inspired “Overtime” about perseverance, and Smiley had the most fun he’s had yet with the braggadocious, Drake-assisted “Over the Top.” The Weeknd continued to release banger after banger as he closed out the After Hours era. But it wasn’t all about reveling in the return to normal, as other artists including Haviah Mighty and The Halluci Nation made some of their most urgent and eye-opening music about the ongoing reckonings and traumas in BIPOC communities. 

From the songs that pushed us to think, to the ones that made us groove, these tracks got us through the second year of a very strange, very unpredictable juncture in history. Here are the 30 best Canadian songs of 2021.

30. Liza, "ROLLA"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Done Is Done

Producer: Akeel Henry

With the release of her Done Is Done EP earlier this year, Toronto R&B singer Liza continued to confirm herself as a talented singer and songwriter, and “Rolla” set the tone for the project. On the Akeel Henry-produced track, Liza is situated in the heady, early days of a relationship, logically sketching out her expectations with ‘just a few rules’ in her head, while fully expecting to go on an emotional rollercoaster ride with her carefully guarded heart. It’s a highly relatable snapshot of a vulnerable moment in a relationship and Liza’s impressively versatile vocal delivery imbues the track’s elegant soulful sheen with all the requisite emotional nuance the yearning for true love can evoke. —Del Cowie

29. Shantel May f/ Westside Gunn, "Until I Say So"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Don’t Let Them See You Cry

Producer: Nineteen85, Allen Ritter, Neenyo

Relationships can often be messy and this is something that Toronto R&B singer Shantel May clearly understands. Best known for her head-turning cameos with dvsn (see “Again”), May continues to stack acclaim with this track from her Don’t Let Them See You Cry EP. On the nostalgic, soul-driven number, May is frustrated with the Groundhog Day-rut of the relationship and demands some time and space of her own from her partner, laying down the law that she will end things if and when she sees fit. In typical Griselda fashion, Westside Gunn rolls up as the toxic boyfriend trying to coax her out of the grey area and definitively back into his arms. Responding to Flygod’s crude charms, May reaffirms her boundaries and her impassioned delivery signals a defiantly strengthened resolve to assert her own agency. —Del Cowie

28. Kaytranada f/ Thundercat, "Be Careful"

View this video on YouTube

Album: N/A

Producer: Kaytranada

“Be Careful” is the type of song that you’d hear at a club dancing with your date when you realize there’s a deeper connection than you initially thought. On the surface, it sounds like a typical Kaytranada banger ready for the dancefloor, which it is to a degree. But dig a little deeper, listen to Thundercat’s singing, and suddenly you realize that the track is more like the type of song you’d put on after stepping through the front door of your home with the person you left with. When you mix Kaytranada’s bouncy production with Thundercat’s soothing warm vocals, you get the ideal hybrid club-banger-bedroom-jam. —Louis Pavlakos

27. Alessia Cara, "Sweet Dream"

View this video on YouTube

Album: In The Meantime

Producer: Jon Levine, Jason Evigan, Spencer Stewart

Throughout her career, Alessia Cara has managed to become one of the most relatable songwriters. She’s never been shy to sing about her anxiety and on “Sweet Dream,” she exemplifies this by diving into her insomnia and overthinking. The track unfolds in a timeline beginning nearly at 5:00 a.m., where Cara has still yet to fall asleep thanks to crushing overthinking. As the song progresses, so does the morning and no matter what she tries, nothing helps. Though the track sounds uplifting and even outright happy at times, Cara just wants to sleep, something we could all use a little bit more of. —Louis Pavlakos

26. Nate Husser and FouKi, "Poutine Sauce"

View this video on YouTube

Album: N/A

Producer: Jay Century

The English and French rap scenes in Quebec are rising side-by-side, but rarely together. Leave it to two of the biggest names on each end of the linguistic divide to bridge those gaps in honour of the province’s signature dish (and sauce in general). In terms of pure numbers, no one in Quebec rap racks them up as high as FouKi. Nate Husser may not have the same reach, but he’s the Montreal rap aficionado’s choice. An odd match on paper? Perhaps. It works because instead of feeling the weight of the union, they’re just looking to have a good time, with weird bars to match. Like “Danse la Poutine” before it, the song is less about the meal and more about the rest of the night. —Erik Leijon

25. Haviah Mighty f/ Yizzy, "Protest"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Stock Exchange

Producer: Haviah Mighty, Young Dreadz

Haviah Mighty takes protesting from the streets to the studio with her Black Lives Matter-inspired anthem about trauma and systemic racism. As always, her flow is on point and her lyrics are visceral, perhaps more honed than ever before as she alerts listeners to all the realities anchored to simply living while Black. Drill-inspired beats hammer home references to Africville, reminding listeners that racism only evolves but never truly dies. And by the time Yizzy pops in with his verse, piping up to say that things across the pond aren’t any better, it’s clear that the power of the song isn’t just within the lyrics but the details–the gunshots echo solemnly in the background, sparking the realization that even when the music stops, the racism still persists. —Natalie Harmsen

24. Chiiild f/ Mahalia, "Awake"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Hope For Sale

Producers: Yonatan “xSDTRK” Ayal, PL, Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II

Comprised of Yonatan Ayal and Pierre-Luc Rioux, L.A.-based Montreal transplants Chiiild released one of the year’s most intriguing singles in the form of “Awake.” Chiiild’s full-length Hope For Sale flaunts a genre-fusing approach that revels in nostalgia and “Awake” is perhaps its most intoxicating sonic specimen. Anchored by an arresting reverb-soaked guitar riff off the rip, “Awake” immediately establishes an alluring hold on the senses, solidified by a nimbly funky bassline pushed up high in the mix. Essentially the soundtrack to a steamy rendezvous, Ayal and UK R&B vocalist Mahalia playfully trade off verses, revealing their carnal longing, and as the track’s erotic tension gradually builds, it eventually dissolves into a satiating, swirling, string-laden crescendo. —Del Cowie

23. Dvsn and Ty Dolla Sign, "Memories"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Cheers to the Best Memories

Producer: Nineteen85, Noah “40” Shebib

“Memories” was a team effort. 40 first sent the Silk-sampling beat, Nineteen85 presented it to his collaborators, then Ty Dolla $ign and Daniel Daley brought it to life with their silky vocals. Everything comes together harmoniously—both singers’ vocals, 40 and Nineteen85’s contributions to the beat, the diffusion of classic and contemporary R&B, and each act’s respective takes on sex music (Dvsn tends to be more doting with their lyrics while Dolla $ign’s intimate lyrics can sometimes be brash). Thankfully, they find common ground with soaring Auto-Tuned vocals, campy lyricism (see “I wanna knock your walls down, then we’ll build something”) and a shared affinity for making aphrodisiac-esque music. —Sumiko Wilson

22. Emanuel, "Worldwide"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Alt Therapy

Producers: John Fellner, Ryan Bakalarczyk

Even Issa Rae sees it: Emanuel is an undeniable, world-class talent. But nobody sees it more clearly than the Toronto R&B singer himself. “Worldwide,” with its hazy, spectral ambiance and “shut up I’m manifesting” energy, is Emanuel’s soul-drenched law-of-attraction anthem, on which he attempts to belt his hopes and dreams into existence. “I’m tryna take the damn thing worldwide,” he sings in a tone so impassioned and transfixing the universe can’t help but do a spit-take and pay attention. “If you look back in history, I would equate times like these to times you’d see some of the greatest artists emerging to give the people what they want,” the singer told us when we interviewed him earlier this year. A man with a lofty vision, delivering a soaring tune to match. May he never stop repeating affirmations. —Alex Nino Gheciu

21. Savannah Ré, "24hrs"

View this video on YouTube

Album: N/A

Producer: YogiTheProducer, adamjosh

Savannah Ré’s sole single of the year sounds like it could be the spiritual sequel to “Solid,” the Juno-winning standout on her 2020 debut. Like “Solid,” “24hrs” is a ballad steeped in infatuation (she opens the track by admitting she’s “Spelling your name in mine, adding your last to mine”) and underscored by a slick, simple instrumental, produced by her husband YogiTheProducer—a detail that makes the track that much sweeter. Inspired by the 24/7 contact many couples endured during lockdown, it’s the perfect post-pandemic love song for couples who were unscathed from the quarantine. —Sumiko Wilson

20. Majid Jordan, "Waves of Blue"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Wildest Dreams

Producer: Jordan Ullman, Koz

Blue is often a colour associated with sadness. However, on Majid Jordan’s “Waves of Blue,” they flip the script and create new connotations. The Toronto-based duo’s lead single off Wildest Dreams is about yearning for a deep love with someone that hasn’t necessarily started yet. Majid Al Maskati’s lyrics evoke a sense of earnestness and vulnerability across Jordan Ullman’s glossy and nostalgic production. Even when Majid admits that this mystery woman might not be the best fit for him, he still goes against his best judgement to be with her—a recipe for the perfect toxic love song. —Louis Pavlakos

19. Charlotte Cardin, "Passive Aggressive"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Phoenix

Producer: Jason Brando, Marc-André Gilbert (MAG), Connor Seidel

Charlotte Cardin’s “Passive Aggressive” is one of the best petty anthems of the year. Though it’s a song about an ex with whom she doesn’t get along with anymore, Cardin revels in looking attractive much to the chagrin of this man who becomes visibly distraught at the sight of her looking good. You can hear it in Cardin’s voice that she takes joy in being the one who’s come along better after their breakup. With a chorus that starts with “Hallelujah, baby, we’re no longer together,” this track is a lock for future songs to play after getting out of a dysfunctional relationship. —Louis Pavlakos

18. Backxwash f/ Ada Rook, "I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses"

View this video on YouTube

Album: I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses

Producer: Backxwash

Something tells me Backxwash is angry. Maybe it’s the scathing, deranged, city-leveling Godzilla rampage of a title track off her latest album. She certainly has a lot to be vexed about—being an African-born Black trans woman facing racism, misogyny, and alienation from the religion she grew up with—and she lets us hear about it on this raging tempest of rap and industrial metal. “The artistry that I’m giving/Ghosted up in the matrix/Almost like our ancients weren’t posted up in the slave ships,” the Montreal rapper-producer snarls, giving us some of 2021’s most screamable bars. Ada Rook provides an absolutely cursed guest hook, sounding like a demon shrieking at the mouth of hell. The intensity doesn’t let up until the purge is over, the catharsis is complete. It’s no wonder why Backxwash, more than any other Canadian artist, touched a nerve with international heavy music audiences this year. In the industry, we call this a flex. —Alex Nino Gheciu

17. Dijah SB f/ Chris Castello, "Overtime"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Head Above the Waters

Producer: Limousine

While some of us may feel in a rut at work, hotshot Toronto MC DijahSB turns toil and labor into an irresistible groove on this standout track from their essential 2021 album Head Above the Waters. Amid Chris Castello’s resilience-themed chorus and producer Limousine’s strutting bass sample and resolute keys, Dijah spits about not only staying strong despite feeling awkward or lost, but successfully shrugging haters off. Equally compelling: Dijah’s retail-rooted boasts like, “Talking like you ain’t seen me in Supreme before/Never seen a box logo so clean before.” If only all our workplaces could be blessed with Dijah’s anthemic bars. —Kyle Mullin

16. Manila Grey f/ James Reid, "Backhouse Ballin'"

View this video on YouTube

Album: No Saints on Knight Street

Producer: azel north

Blaring out of every bar in Vancouver and every jeepney truck in Manila, “Backhouse Ballin’” was one of the year’s biggest transpacific success stories. It’s Manila Grey’s coast-to-coast love-in, finding them at their infectious best. Neeko’s gritty baritone intertwines with Soliven’s slippery tenor like youth water blending with the heem, poured over a base of epic organ chords and slinky basslines, served up by resident aural mixologist azel north. Filipino-Australian singer-songwriter James Reid takes us home with a flossy verse that essentially hears him blow a small country’s GDP in 30 seconds. It’s a tune about overcoming the odds and reaping the rewards; an unimpeachable pop-R&B party joint with an open invitation: to the west side, the east side, the north side, and the south side. On this track, everybody eats. —Alex Nino Gheciu

15. The Weeknd and Post Malone, "One Right Now"

View this video on YouTube

Album: N/A

Producer: Louis Bell, Brian Lee, Andrew Bolooki

The ’80s electropop vibe from After Hours is still in full effect as The Weeknd and Posty team up as perfect vocal matches on the decidedly upbeat, synth-heavy pop track “One Right Now.” How it’s taken this many years for a collab between the two artists to materialize is beyond us, as they make the case that a joint album between them needs to happen with their clear harmonies and sharp lyrics. “You say you love me, but I don’t care,” they take turns singing as they ponder numbing their respective heartbreaks with new lovers. Each artist has proved their chameleon-like versatility over the years—The Weeknd more than most, but “One Right Now” solidifies that his octave-spanning enigmatic voice can work on any song, with that signature falsetto taking things to the next level. Plus, with a reference to The Weeknd’s “Belong to the World,” the track shows that although he’s made it big, he’s navigating heartache in the same way as all those years ago, but this time around he’s crafted an immaculate landscape to get lost in while dancing the pain away. —Natalie Harmsen

14. TOBi, "Don't Touch!"

View this video on YouTube

Album: N/A

Producers: Kaytranada, BADBADNOTGOOD

TOBi is as smooth as ever with his clever and bold lyricism on the Kaytranada and BADBADNOTGOOD-produced “Don’t Touch!” At the forefront, the track is a callout to people to own who they are, and to not let anyone police them–especially when it comes to their hair. The danceable beats and BADBADNOTGOOD’s jazzy production give the song layers that allow his searing thoughts on the Flint Water Crisis and Instagram influencers to hit new heights. It’s a song that shows TOBi excels when making music with a message that’s catchy enough to draw listeners in and holds their attention with its weighted substance. —Natalie Harmsen

13. Amaal, "Honey"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Milly

Producer: Nicky Davey

Amaal lets her alter ego Milly out to play on the experimental R&B track “Honey,” which is decidedly not as sweet as the song’s title would lead listeners to believe. “I got that honey,” she sings with unabashed confidence as she revels in looking and feeling her best and embracing her more sensual side. The simple beats combined with Amaal’s smooth, velvety vocals make for a sultry yet refreshing take on self-empowerment, as she claims ownership of who she is as a woman who is unapologetically herself. Although “Honey” has a futuristic feel, it’s the beats and the air of untouchable attitude that act as a nod to the ’90s. The song is bold yet minimal, making it equal parts sleek and compelling. There’s no room for any sort of judgement, as Amaal is fully in the driver’s seat, stepping into her light and reaching for what’s hers. —Natalie Harmsen

12. The Halluci Nation f/ Boogey the Beat and Northern Voice, "Land Back"

View this video on YouTube

Album: One More Saturday Night

Producers: The Halluci Nation

A standout on The Halluci Nation’s 2021 album One More Saturday Night, but first released as a single in 2020, “Land Back” has only sadly grown in relevance. Tim “2oolman” Hill and Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas first dropped the song for free in support of Indigenous protestors of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Together with Anishinaabe DJ Boogey the Beat and powwow drumming and singing group Northern Voice, from the Atikamekw territory of Wemotaci in Quebec, Halluci Nation provide a mix of dance breaks and authentic chants hard-driving enough for both the necessary protests of the moment and those to come, as Indigenous activists valiantly march on. —Kyle Mullin

11. Drake, "Lemon Pepper Freestyle"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Scary Hours 2

Producer: Boi 1da, Austin Powerz, FNZ, Keanu Beats

With Certified Lover Boy taking up most of the attention around Drake in 2021, it’s easy to forget that his Scary Hours 2 EP, released earlier in the year, was the appetizer for the main course. Even then, “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” wasn’t the main track off the project, dutifully deferring to “What’s Next.” Yet the lyrically top-heavy track has an ineffable, enduring quality to it. This is partly due to the indelible sample of Quadron’s “Pressure” that floats beatifically underneath the Boi-1da-scored track. Given such a sonically opulent environment in which to play, leadoff batter Rick Ross is egged on to deliver a ballerific verse, but despite its potency, he’s merely the warmup act. Drake picks up the baton and certifiably blacks out on the track, rhyming close to four minutes with a hook nowhere in sight. Pontificating on stunting at PTA meetings, the hometown adoration he’ll receive at his death, and seemingly endless signifiers of his considerable wealth, it’s Drake at his impudent best. Unfurling bars in a matter-of-fact stream-of-consciousness flow, it’s the type of verse that makes you wonder what Drake in “Tuscan Leather”/”Pound Cake” mode for an entire album might sound like. And that’s facts. —Del Cowie

10. Belly, The Weeknd, and Young Thug, "Better Believe"

View this video on YouTube

Album: See You Next Wednesday

Producers: Zaytoven; ‎DannyBoyStyles‎

Doubt him at your peril. Fourteen years after his debut studio album, and a head-spinningly successful comeback after a hiatus, Ottawa MC Belly recruited pop music’s biggest name and rap’s most subversive star for a chest thumper like no other. The Weeknd’s voice is not only reliably silky as ever, but his decrees about permanence at the pinnacle are in lockstep with Belly’s boasts. Young Thug, meanwhile, is as wonderfully weird as you’d hope with lines about cinematic rides and buying fleets of presumably priceless yachts. Daunting as all that might sound, the marquee MC somehow doesn’t get upstaged. “Baby, we ain’t in the same bracket/They ridin’ waves, this is Lake Placid,” he nimbly punchlines, holding his own alongside the R&B chart-topper that helped revitalize his career as they co-wrote “Often,” “The Hills, ”“Shameless,” “Earned It,” “In the Night,” and “As You Are.” When it comes to victory laps, “Better Believe” is perfectly suited for this enduring Canadian duo. —Kyle Mullin

9. Charlotte Day Wilson f/ BADBADNOTGOOD, "I Can Only Whisper"

View this video on YouTube

Album: ALPHA

Producer: Charlotte Day Wilson, Tommy Brenneck

Charlotte Day Wilson’s idiosyncratic vocals soar to new, dizzying heights on this dreamlike exploration of yearning. Day Wilson brings poetry to life with her stunning lyrics: “But here, the poet floats in a well, yeah/My words are soaking, coated in braille, yeah.” Her rich tone combined with BADBADNOTGOOD’s funky drums and bassline injects the song with a groove that gives it a magical funky touch. Their seamless blending of Day Wilson’s signature slow R&B with their groovy instrumentals make the bridge feel transcendent, and allow the entire song to drip with emotion as she pines. Her tender soulfulness allows her vulnerability to wash over every note, making you feel her wistfulness to the fullest. —Natalie Harmsen

8. Smiley f/ Drake, “Over the Top”

View this video on YouTube

Album: Buy or Bye 2

Producer: Tay Keith

As soon as it dropped, this track had many questioning whether OVO Sound’s latest signee deserved the Drake stimulus package. “Smiley sounds like he’s gonna say ‘daddy’ after every bar,” says one of the most liked comments on the song’s YouTube page. There’s certainly something unusual about the rising Toronto rapper’s cooing, ASMR-friendly flow, but hey, that’s kinda what makes this song work. Over a coruscating Tay Keith beat with shades of the Halloween theme, Smiley’s woozy verses about his Pelham Park-to-Hollywood ascent complement Drake’s airtight, flexing-from-my-private-jet refrains in a unique way. A way that’s got us hitting repeat. Smiley’s “Prada and Gucci” line is silly, yes, but also stupidly catchy. “I was just bare thinking, What the fuck? Why me? type of shit,” the rapper told us of his thoughts when Drake first reached out to him. But perhaps The Boy was onto something; while “Over the Top” may be his most contentious feature of the year, it’s also one of his most memorable. —Alex Nino Gheciu

7. Cadence Weapon, "SENNA"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Parallel World

Producer: Jacques Greene

“Flow like a chicane, might crash up your Civic/MC, DJ, put a dash in the middle,” Cadence Weapon raps on his energetic ode to Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna. “SENNA” surges with thundering drums and simmering synths, as he reflects on sticking by his choices and carving out his own path as an artist. He follows the beat with ease, switching up between a smooth, relaxed delivery to high-energy, sharp bars, name-dropping other musicians from Pino Palladino to Tito Jackson. The moment where he truly shines is when he’s reminding everyone that he’ll always be a poet. He flexes his wordsmithing prowess as the track closes out with a short spoken word bit about the power of individuality. It’s fun and fluid, dripping in self-awareness, and indicative of why Cadence won this year’s Polaris Music Prize. The track whips through each verse as he teases lapping his peers, but without sounding cocky—he’s simply just spitting facts about standing out. —Natalie Harmsen

6. NorthSideBenji and DJ Charlie B, "30,000 ft"

View this video on YouTube

Album: N/A

Producer: DJ Charlie B, AT

What was Toronto rapper NorthSideBenji up to in the intervening years between Caviar Dreams/Frienemy and his 2021 return? Flying the globe, apparently. His effortlessly smooth comeback single glides over timeless-sounding Charlie B production, and serves as a one-off taste of what was to come in the form of The Extravagant Collection. As aspirational as “30,000 ft” sounds, the lyrics do chronicle the trials and difficulties that occurred during his time away. He pays tribute to fallen “twin” Houdini and melodically declares he’s been making his way through the streets again.

It’s a tightrope NorthSideBenji has time and time again been able to walk with ease: disarming with his melodic chops while simultaneously sounding like the most serious man in the room. On “30,000 ft,” his two halves reach new heights. In co-producer Charlie B, NorthSideBenji has found someone who’s walked that walk, with the rolodex to match. Together, they reached for that triumphant feel of Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle” and came through with flying colours. —Erik Leijon

5. Pressa f/ Coi Leray, “Attachments (Remix)”

View this video on YouTube

Album: Gardner Express (Deluxe)

Producer: ItsNell

After years of amassing a following in Canada and the UK, Toronto rapper Pressa finally got his American close-up thanks to a remix of his single “Attachments,” featuring his more famous girlfriend Coi Leray. Sure, this may be the duo’s “Señorita”—their unofficial debut as music’s newest cross-border couple (and perhaps its preeminent one now; R.I.P Shawn and Camila)—but it’s also more than that. The song is a survival anthem striking a curious balance between gruesome and glorious. Pressa sing-raps about his treacherous rise out of the trenches—licking shots at enemies and gold diggers along the way—while Leray celebrates life on the other side, all over an ItsNell beat so ethereal, it runs the risk of floating away. Their similarly helium-pitched voices, while providing ammo for all the Siblings or Dating? jokes about them, come together in a smooth and soothing way, like a Theragun for the ears. Nobody makes graphic street reporting (“My opps they crippin’, but lately they had to bleed”) sound tuneful quite like Pressa, and it’s about time he got his shine. Watch out for Coi Leray’s mans. He’s going places. —Alex Nino Gheciu

4. Drake, "Champagne Poetry"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Certified Lover Boy

Producer: Noah “40” Shebib, Masego, Maneesh & Oliver El-Khatib, J.L.L

To celebrate Drake’s sonic evolution is to celebrate that of his go-to producer, Noah “40” Shebib, and “Champagne Poetry” is a testament to how far they’ve both come. The song plays like the opening number of a Broadway musical, catching us up on where Drake’s been in the most theatrical way possible. 

What follows is the quintessential Drake song: quippy burns (“Fuck a valuation, show me personal funds”), a brief look into his personal life (“Co-parent of the year, we figured out a rapport”), and he even throws in an exasperated sigh (that’s how you know he means business). 

Over six minutes (!!!), 40 gradually adds texture to the beat in a way that’s masterful and strategic. Around four minutes in, after the sample switches from Masego’s haunting flip of The Beatles’ “Michelle’’ to a gospel hymn, the beat peaks with such intensity that when I’m listening in a car, I have to resist the urge to stick my head out the window like a dog and yell “TORONTO!” It’s clear that when they recorded this song and selected it as the album’s opener, everyone at The Embassy© knew fans would be looking out for how Drake chose to open and close the project—he delivered in both respects, but the intro takes everything to new heights. —Sumiko Wilson

3. Skiifall f/ Knucks, "Ting Tun Up Part II"

View this video on YouTube

Album: N/A

Producer: YAMA//SATO

In late 2020, the then-unknown Notre-Dame-de-Grace rapper Skiifall dropped the locally made track “Ting Tun Up” and its locally shot video to little fanfare, although things changed in a hurry. It didn’t take long for the dancehall- and grime-infused Vincentian mission statement to cross an ocean and eventually fall into the laptops of a number of tastemaking UK DJs like Benji B and Kenny Allstar, who took the young Montreal talent and accepted him as their own. 

As the song’s reputation rose across the pond, so too did the opportunity to strike again while the iron was hot and with more music incoming. Skiifall teamed up with South Kilburn’s Knucks for a virtual cross-continental collaboration similar to A$ap Rocky and Skepta’s “Praise the Lord (Da Shine).” The shot-in-two-places video brings home just how similar their respective neighbourhoods are, save for a smattering of French words on signs: Skiifall’s NDG upbringing adequately prepared him for a life as an honourary Brit.

There’s a purity to the DIY original and its humble origins that can’t necessarily be replicated, but “Ting Tun Up Part II” by no means waters down what Skiifall and producer YAMA//SATO brought to the table. If anything, it’s remarkable to hear a seasoned rapper like Knucks respect the track’s essence without trying to upstage anyone. It’s a testament to the song’s inalienable and undeniable expressiveness that it says so much about its creator for an opening salvo. —Erik Leijon

2. Mustafa, "Ali"

View this video on YouTube

Album: When Smoke Rises

Producers: Frank Dukes, Simon Hessman, Rodaidh McDonald, Matthew Tavares

Before Mustafa was a singer, he was a poet. And his music refuses to allow us to forget that. Narratives on his debut project revolved around the circumstances that ended his friends’ lives prematurely, anchored by the insurmountable mourning that these losses left behind. But no track embodied these themes more than “Ali,” an acoustic ode to Ali Rizeig, who was murdered at his home in Regent Park in 2017. 

The story that Mustafa tells on “Ali” is heart-wrenching. When the second verse opens, he taps into memories where he’s pleading with his friend (“You should’ve lеft your home/I told you to go/I told you it wouldn’t be safe/I told you it wasn’t the way”). In the video for “Ali,” which Mustafa directed himself, we see him ambling through Regent Park while his friends literally fade into the ether around him. Though Rizeig is at the heart of the track, we’re experiencing the trauma and aftermath through Mustafa’s lens. His expressive voice (when he sings Ali’s name on the chorus, it sounds like he’s crying out to him) and masterful pen (in the outro he sings “Now it’s only me that needs to save himself/Feel like I can’t be here while you’re in that realm”) make it clear that this isn’t just about Ali, but about the weight of remembering and the guilt of surviving. —Sumiko Wilson

1. Justin Bieber f/ Daniel Caesar and Giveon, "Peaches"

View this video on YouTube

Album: Justice

Producer: HARV, Shndo

I don’t think that Justin Bieber’s 2021 drop Justice was quite the slam dunk—or social reform catalyst—that he said it would be. But on an album that felt all over the place (guest appearances ranged from Quavo to Martin Luther King Jr…), “Peaches” was perfectly on point. When he first debuted the sunkissed track during his technicolour Tiny Desk Concert last March, it was a stripped and slowed down rendition that let the clever, state-spanning lyrics, the chord progressions, and his vocals shine. It was the perfect way to premiere the track, since Bieber gave us a snippet in similar fashion towards the end of last year.

When the track landed on our list of best new releases last March, I wrote that it “embodies the R&B sound that [he] thought he was tapping into on his last album, Changes.” Nine months later, I still stand by that take. “Peaches” makes a valid case for Justin Bieber as an R&B artist (one he’s been unsuccessfully trying to plead for a while now) in a way that still sounds authentic to him. He called in features from fellow Canadian Daniel Caesar, who had an otherwise silent year, and Giveon, whose silky baritone helped him emerge from the pandemic as one of the genre’s frontrunners. These are the album’s most sensible features (no, I’m still not over MLK being on the tracklist and I will never be). Each of the three have such different vocal tones, but they blend in a way that makes the transition from verse to verse so smooth that it’s impossible to only listen once.

Post-“Peaches,” Bieber was back to his old tricks—the track spawned a cannabis venture (honestly, sure) and dreadlocks that I still can’t quite make sense of. But it wasn’t for naught: for the first time in a while, he’s up for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best R&B Performance, and Best Music Video at this year’s Grammys and TBH it’s a very viable contender. If he wins, do you think he’ll thank his white R&B forefathers Jon B. and Bobby Caldwell in his speech? I think he should. Respect the architects, Biebs! —Sumiko Wilson

Latest in Music