When I look back on 2021, the songs that stood out weren’t the ones that hogged the top of the Hot 100. The songs that stood out pulled off the rare feat of transforming the world around me for three minutes at a time. The songs that stood out captured the frenzied catharsis that was birthed out of exasperation of the world around us. The songs that stood out focused on the most minuscule feelings and made them the most important thing in the universe for just a few minutes. When a song can do those things…. well, that’s music doing its job. Here are the 40 Best Songs of 2021:
40. “Poster Girl” (Zara Larsson)
“Ho-ly smokes!” No one put out a better pop song than “Poster Girl” this year. The title track from Zara Larsson’s formidable third studio album, “Poster Girl” is a saccharine synth-laden ode to weed that rejects the role model archetype that so many unsuspecting pop stars are forced into. “I want the sweet organic healing on the tip of my tongue,” she teases over exuberant production courtesy of The Roommates and Jason Gill. On a dance album as consistent as Poster Girl, the peaks are especially high, and “Poster Girl” is simply irresistible.
39. “Rush” (Stokley featuring H.E.R.)
H.E.R. may have dropped one of the more disappointing albums of the year, but her feature game rarely wavered. Joining the R&B icon for a passionate duet that centers spiritual connections over physical ones, H.E.R. is the perfect addition to this track from Stokley’s latest album. The focus on energy over the body is underscored by their intense vocal chemistry and the earthy quality of their phrasing. Epic drums and finger snaps cradle their tight harmonies with careful consideration. You really can’t go wrong with two musical prodigies, crunchy harmonies, and an enrapturing melody.
38. “No Friends In The Industry” (Drake)
Drake’s Certified Lover Boy is one of the biggest albums of the year, but it’s still an inconsistent slog. Like any Drake record, however, there are a few gems, and “No Friend In The Industry” is one of the gems that shines the brightest. Built around a sample of Three 6 Mafia’s “Niggaz Ain’t Barin’ Dat,” Drake celebrates the closeness of his inner circle in the face of beefs with his peers in the industry. “And your circle shrinkin’, see some boys escapin’ / Rest of them is guilty by association,” he raps. The stuttering snare hits and brooding bass keep Drake in a pocket where he shines — aggression mixed with a devil-may-care attitude.
37. “GYALIS” (Capella Grey)
“I see her, she came with her nigga!” If you’re not screaming along to the intro of “GYALIS,” you’re a lame. Period. I don’t know what else to tell you. New York’s very own summer anthem exploded on the national scene this year launching Capella Grey squarely into stardom. The song’s fearless mixture of dancehall, rap, dance, and R&B shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s a song-form tribute to the giant quilt of cultures that make up both New York City and the city’s singular ability to constantly push music and culture forward. One of the more inventive flips of a “Back That Azz Up” sample, “GYALIS” is definitely one of the most unique and enjoyable songs of the year.
36. “Is It Insane” (Alicia Keys)
One of the more recent songs on this list, Alicia Keys’s “Is It Insane (Original)” is fantastic. The track transports us to a hazy jazz lounge where Alicia pours her heart over a dramatic piano melody with a Billie Holiday-esque vocal performance. Originally recorded in 2003 for her The Diary of Alicia Keys album, “Is It Insane” finds Alicia grappling with being entrapped in the throes of love after scoffing at those who had already fallen victim to its games. “When you’re near all of me trembles / Slightest touch and I’m no good,” she coos. A yearning tug of war anchors the lyrics, but it’s Alicia’s alluring vocal performance that really does the heavy lifting here.
35. “Shapeshifter” (Alessia Cara)
Alessia Cara has played the pop game. She’s done the big hit singles and the DJ collabs, but on her most recent album, In The Meantime, she opted for downcast bossa nova stylings to soundtrack her relationship with her anxiety during the pandemic. “Shapeshifter,” the obvious jewel of the album, finds Alessia branching out into cinematic production to highlight the undercurrent of snark in her lyrics. “Replace your guilt with philosophy, bright idea / I bet you forgot you said you need me, on tequila,” she quips at the beginning of the song’s second verse. “Shapeshifter” is a slippery tune. Just when you think you’ve figured out the melodic path, Alessia will switch up her intonation or add some new color to her delivery to keep you on your toes.
34. “Hot Hot” (Bree Runway)
Busta Rhymes “Touch It” sample or no Busta Rhymes “Touch It” sample, Bree Runway’s sole standalone single of the year is still a banger. “Ride the boy face like a Yamaha” remains one of the wildest and best lyrics of the year. With “HOT HOT,” Bree took the spunk from her genre-obliterating 2000And4Eva mixtape and funneled it into this dancefloor anthem drenched in R&B, hip-hop, and notes of dancehall. So many artists’ vocals feel flat and lifeless in the studio and during live performances. Bree Runway, however, injects her infectious personality into every line she delivers, and that’s what makes “Hot Hot” so ferocious.
33. “Beating Down Yo Block” (Monaleo)
The female rap renaissance has shown no signs of slowing down, and Monaleo’s “Beating Down Yo Block” is a welcome addition to the amalgam of sounds that the renaissance has gifted us. Steeped in the pimpish aggression of Houston, Texas, Monaleo rips through two verses that flip traditional notions of the “break-up song.” There’s no wallowing in tears happening here. Monaleo opts for a series of takedowns of her ex and big-ups for herself over the Merion Krazy-helmed production. “And we ain’t taking shit to heart, we just gon take it right outside.” Indeed.
32. “NASA” (Josh Levi)
Outside of The Weeknd, and by some measures, Khalid, there’s still a considerable gap in the market for Black male pop stars. Enter: Josh Levi. He can sing, he can write, he can dance, he can dress, he’s the whole package. One of Issa Rae’s newest Raedio signees, Josh Levi revels in the guilty pleasure of toxicity with “NASA.” Over snappy snares and gloomy guitars, he sing-raps about a girl who makes her way around, but finally meets her match when she encounters him. Josh Levi is a very self-assured performer in the way that he saunters over the production with inimitable cool and swagger. Watch out for him in 2022.
31. “Wild Side” (Normani featuring Cardi B)
The video, the choreography, the looks, the “doo-doo-doo,” Cardi’s verse, the Aaliyah interpolation — everything about “Wild Side” had people talking, and for good reason. Normani’s big comeback single should have led into her long-awaited debut album, or at least a follow-up single, but with such a catchy hook, she’s forgiven for now. Normani’s voice has a similar quality to Rihanna’s in that she makes anything sound good. She slinks over the punchy verse melodies before driving home that sultry bridge. “Wild Side” is all about balance. Cardi’s gruffness and Normani’s softness; the cooing hook and the heavy drums; the tightly-structured verses and the free-flowing outro. This is one of the best R&B songs of the year. Read the full “Wild Side” review here.
30. “Nothing Else Matters” (Miley Cyrus and Friends)
Imagine you get Miley Cyrus, Elton John, WATT, Yo-Yo Ma, Chad Smith, and Robert Trujillo on one track. Now, imagine the track that they are all on is one of the best songs of all time. You’d have this stunning cover of Metallica’s seminal “Nothing Else Matters.” Anchored by Miley’s jaw-dropping vocal performance, this cover places its bets for greatness on its commitment to the theatre of rock. Soul-stirring strings, eerie pianos, and an ever-evolving orchestral arrangement bookmark this gorgeous reimagining. The power of Miley’s voice here simply cannot be overstated. She’s been flirting with rock since her Hannah Montana days and Plastic Hearts was a rewarding foray into that realm, but “Nothing Else Matters” is the single greatest display of the malleability and depth of her voice.
29. “Garden Party” (Masego, Big Boi & JID)
Masego’s whimsical “Garden Party” pulls off what often feels like the impossible. The neo-soul tune is grounded with specific real-world references, yet it feels like a utopia suspended in lilac skies. Functioning as an instrumentalist, vocalist, and general master of ceremonies, Masego sets the scene for a warm Autumntime jam with references to Stomp the Yard, soundbites of chirping birds, and the convergence of two generations of Atlanta rap. Big Boi and JID both deliver terrific verses, but the former’s steamy X-rated wordplay steals the show.
28. “Letter to the Past” (Brandi Carlile)
Even if you’re not an Americana fan or a Brandi Carlile listener, you’ve definitely seen her name in the headlines over the past few years. With a staggering 17(!) Grammy nominations in the last three years, Brandi’s warbling belts and revelatory songwriting have blasted her into music’s frontlines. Her latest album, In These Silent Days, houses the rousing “Letter to the Past.” An ode to her younger self from the perspective of raising her own daughter, “Letter to the Past” hinges upon nostalgia steeped with gratification for the present. It’s introspective and celebratory, and Brandi’s tender vocal performance is top-notch.
27. “The Taste” (Vic Mensa featuring BJ The Chicago Kid)
Vic Mensa is one of those artists that is actually constantly evolving. No two projects from him sound the same, but there’s a cinematic quality that unites his discography. The sweeping strings, juke music elements, and soulful crooning make “The Taste” a love song for the ages. Simultaneously a love song in honor of both his lover and the city of Chicago, “The Taste” emulates its inspiration with complete authenticity. Vic’s verses teeter between salacious and starry-eyed (“Jukin’ on the weekend, had me tweakin’ in yo’ Baby Phat / Yeah, we both is grown now but girl, I still bounce and break your bed”), but it’s BJ the Chicago Kid’s impassioned hook that truly lifts the song. Despite its lyrical simplicity, his warm tone and layered vocals truly sound like falling in love.
26. “New Low” (nightlife)
From Olivia Rodrigo to WILLOW the pop-rock and punk-pop revivals raged throughout the year. Originally highlighted for my New Artist Spotlight series back in July, nightlife’s New Low EP is one of the unsung greats of 2021. The titular track, in particular, is a disco-tinged synth-laden bop about getting in your own way and the frustrations that arise from those kinds of situations. Punchy horns and bass guitar show love to the “pop” and “rock” in pop-rock, a balance that far too many fail to strike.
25. “Birdsong” (Lute featuring JID & Saba)
Lute dropped off his sophomore album Gold Mouf in October, and “Birdsong” is easily one of the strongest tracks on the project. Featuring Saba and JID, who had a banner year this year, “Birdsong” turns a Bollywood sample (“Birha Ki Mari Koi” from the 1979 film Shaitan Mujrim) into a chugging, pensive track that packs in comic book references and nursery rhyme allusions. JID is relegated to hook boy status on this track, but he carries the mantle with care as he slinks his way around Christo’s rich production. There’s an earthiness about this track that comes from its exploration of freedom — freedom from the confines of the rap game and freedom from your own thoughts.
24. “Ease My Mind” (Nija)
The pen behind songs from The Carters, #1 hits from Ariana Grande, and Chlöe’s debut solo single finally granted us a peek into her own sound. Like her string of hits preceding this song, “Ease My Mind” immediately impresses thanks to its earworm of a hook. The second Aaliyah interpolation to land on this list (this one interpolates Aaliyah and Tank’s “Come Over,” hence its second title), “Ease My Mind” features the inevitable, but enjoyable, collision of drill and R&B. The innate pugnacity of drill is offset by Nija’s restrained vocal performance and come-hither lyrics like “Clear all my thoughts, help me reach Nirvana / Save the day like a knight in armor.” If one thing is clear, it’s that Nija’s pen is golden whether she’s writing for herself or for other artists.
23. “Just For Me” (Pinkpantheress)
Pinkpantheress’s criminally short songs took the Internet by storm this year. “Just For Me” channels the obsessive tendencies of Eminem’s legendary “Stan” into a hiccupping morose pseudo-dance track. Produced by Mura Masa, the track uses a hypnotic drum pattern to ground its paeans for reciprocated love. Pinkpantheress’s forlorn vocals express the root of the song’s tragedy — a desire for attention over an obsession with a crush. She’s concerned with how she fits into her crush’s life (“When you wipe your tears, do you wipe them just for me? / Do you wipe them just for me?”), not the other way around. Pulling off a narrative like this is no easy feat, but she makes it look oh-so-easy.
22. “Be Good” (Shenseea)
Shenseea is another star that had a banner year. “Rebel,” a holdover from 2020 sustained its dominance on social media into 2021, and she stole the show on Kanye’s Donda pretty effortlessly. With “Be Good,” her final solo release of the year, Shenseaa flips dancehall’s trademark lustful explicitness into a rallying cry for sex on her terms. Control is the name of the game as she elongates her words in the chorus before attacking the verses with urgent fervor. Rvssian’s thumping production chugs alongside Shenseea’s boasts that she’ll “jump up over di D like seh mi ah di baddest hurdler.” Well, y’all heard the woman!
21. “Put On A Smile” (Silk Sonic)
In my long-form review of An Evening With Silk Sonic, I expressed my grievances with Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s latest project. Not among those grievances, however, was album standout “Put On A Smile.” From the heavy-handed Bootsy Collins intro (“Ain’t no shame beggin’ in the rain”) to Bruno’s impassioned begging-on-his-knees-in-the-pouring-rain belts, “Put On A Smile” is a sweet callback to the theatre that used to be male R&B. Anderson pushed himself to new vocal limits with key changes galore and notes that are held out for what feels like eons. The songwriting hits that schmaltzy sweet spot that Bruno often overshoots, and the pair’s chemistry is at maximum efficiency. You can’t go wrong with this one.
20. “Off” (Maxwell)
A legend in every sense of the word, you know you’re getting quality music when you click on a Maxwell song. His latest offering to preview his upcoming blacksummer’sNIGHT album is the silk quiet storm-evoking “Off.” Co-produced by Maxwell himself and Hod David, “Off” is all about having the courage to shoot your shot and worship the person that’s got you wrapped around their finger. “I’m in awe / Creamy chocolate work of art / Your skin is so damn soft / Cocoa butter silky thoughts…” you see where this is going. Ardent drums, piano, guitar, and bass keep the track rooted in Maxwell’s storied neo-soul tradition, but with lyrics like “I’m shootin’ all my shots / I won’t miss them,” he saunters into 2021 with timeless swagger.
19. “Been Like This” (Doja Cat)
C’mon. You didn’t really think I’d write a list of this nature and not have the one song that I could not shut up about on it? Doja Cat, the defining artist of 2021, gave us a track for the ages with “Been Like This.” If you haven’t noticed yet, a recurring theme on this list has been drama. With the opening click of a record player, a rousing string arrangement, and a heartfelt rap verse that culminates in an ever-so-slight voice crack, “Been Like This” packs on the drama. The “been/be in” wordplay remains a clever touch, and Doja’s somber vocal performance really pulls the whole thing together. This is the crux of Planet Her, the moment where Doja sheds the lustfulness and unpacks the undercurrent of sadness that runs through the album’s ballads. Need I say more?
18. “Wasting Time” (Brent Faiyaz featuring Drake)
This song made an appearance on the Mid-Year ranking, and it’s sustained its power to land on the Year-End list. From Summer Walker to SZA, The Neptunes have been making their presence known among younger generations of R&B listeners. Their best offering in that string of collaborations is this moody number courtesy of Brent Faiyaz and Drake. “Wasting Time” is essentially what happens when two kings join together to maximize their joint toxicity. Or however that meme goes. You know the one. Anyways, “Wasting Time” works so well because the premise of the track is Brent and Drake claiming to respect their lover’s space and giving them time to themselves. In the context of their discographies, however, we know that’s not happening. From the serene strings to Drake’s stellar verse (seriously, it’s better than a large chunk of CLB), “Wasting Time” literally wastes nary a second of its runtime.
17. “Crazy Tings” (Tems)
“Essence” dominated the globe and “Crazy Tings” is right on its heels. No lyric better encapsulates the madness of the past few years as “Crazy tings are happenin’ / Crazy tings are happеnin.'” Indeed. The canorous drums and guitars provide the framework for Tems’ alluring tone to take center stage. Her smoky lower register has such an arresting quality to it. She pulls you in with her voice and wraps each phrase around your soul. The rhythm is simply hypnotic, and the song’s hints of old-school reggae blend well with her version of contemporary afrobeats. For a song about crazy things happening, the track is remarkably calm and steady.
16. “Black Woman” (Fatoumata Diawara & Ms. Lauryn Hill)
Ms. Lauryn Hill’s guest appearance on Nas’s King’s Disease II garnered a lot of acclaim and attention, but the same should have happened for “Black Woman,” her contribution to The Harder They Fall’s soundtrack. Lauryn repeatedly references “Charlie,” a character for her to lambast her detractors and critics (“I sat down on the sidelines and they still tried to bite me / They think they buried my career and promoted my peers to spite me”) as she deftly raps over production that blends the most beautiful elements of soul, afrobeats, and reggae. Guitar, saxophone, trumpet, and drums decorate this battle cry of a track. Easily the best song on the soundtrack, “Black Woman” is one of the biggest hidden gems of the year.
15. “Story Time” (Fivio Foreign)
A lot of people may still only know Fivio from “Big Drip,” but this year proved that he has a lot more to offer than street bangers. For his first of two appearances on this list, Fivio enters with “Story Time.” Produced by 808k_antares, Sav Beats & AyoAA, “Story Time” trades the buoyant gusto of “Big Drip” for a gripping narrative of the destructive nature of incarceration and life inside and outside of prison. “They hate his guts, they think he killed police / They made it super cold with the AC / They ain’t give him no blanket, they ain’t give him no sheets / They put him in a cell with a dirty ass sink,” he spits. Fivio’s performance here is bubbling with muted range, just like the young man in the story that he is conveying. He’s often been doubted as a lyricist, but his storytelling abilities are unquestionably strong. One of the most arresting songs of the year, “Story Time” is a genuine display of the breadth of Fivio’s talent.
14. “camera-roll” (Kacey Musgraves)
Out of all of the songs on her stunning star-crossed album, “camera-roll” was the only individual track to pick up nominations at next year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. It’s obvious why. Any song that can capture the volatile Pandora’s box of memories and emotions that is a phone’s camera roll is bound to be an excellent one. “Chronological order and nothing but torture / Scroll too far back, that’s what you get,” Kacey sings. One thing a lot of modern breakup songs and albums miss is the unique role that technology plays in the aftermath and process of these dissolutions. Kacey attacks it head-on with “camera-roll,” and the way those gentle drums cradle her fragile vocal performance? Incredible.
13. “Bunny Is A Rider” (Caroline Polachek)
People love Halloween because it gives us the chance to dress up and pretend to be someone or something that we’re not. The concept of trying on a new attitude or a new look or a new persona for a night, and then returning to the comfort of your standard or natural state is an alluring one. With “Bunny Is A Rider,” Caroline translates those feelings into just over three minutes of unadulterated sexy fun. She saunters over Danny L. Harde’s bass with a tone that combines apathy, flirtatiousness, lust, and confidence into one fearless entity. “No sympathy, hmm / Ain’t nothing for free,” she teases is the song’s hook. Bunny is always in control, even when you think she isn’t. Caroline is sort of just talking in a lower register as opposed to actually singing, but that dry quality adds a sense of humor to the track that only serves to elevate it.
12. “Pressure” (Ari Lennox)
Ari Lennox had a great year. She delivered terrific guest appearances on albums from Jazmine Sullivan (Heaux Tales) and Summer Walker (Still Over It), and her own songs were just as arresting. The crown jewel of her releases this year is definitely “Pressure.” Built around a sample of Shirley Brown’s “Blessed Is The Woman (With A Man Like Mine),” Ari blends trap drums and Motown-inspired vocal arrangements to craft this delightfully naughty sex anthem. Like I said in my initial review of the track, this is a song that sounds pretty but gets real nasty. “Keep me runnin’ (Hey), leave it messy / Go ahead and live in it, swim up in me,” she challenges her lover in the song’s bridge. Ari bends her voice to emulate squeals of pleasure and evoke husky taunts to her bed partner; her vocal performance on this track is genuinely expressive. “Pressure” probably has the greatest replay value of any song released this year, it’s just that good.
11. “Altar” (Kehlani)
Kehlani is an interesting position. They’re one of the most consistent R&B stars of their class, yet they don’t seem to get the same love from industry awards institutions that their peers do. Regardless, the quality of their music always speaks for itself. “Altar,” the lead single from Kehlani’s forthcoming studio album, is a bass-driven mission to uplift and honor the loved ones that they have lost. Bass guitar anchors the track as Kehlani sings of how they will reunite with their lost ones at the altar. “If I set a flame and I call your name / I’ll fix you a plate, we can go to dinner,” is a harrowing line. Kehlani is grappling with grief in real-time, just like so many of us in this pandemic-stricken world, and that kind of transparency (and subject matter) is incredibly refreshing to hear.
10. “My Little Love” (Adele)
Adele is known for her gut-wrenching ballads, but she may never make a song a soul-shattering as “My Little Love.” punctuated by incredulous interjections from her young son and her own tear-soaked voice notes, Adele digs into the specific brand of loneliness that consumed her after her divorce. “My little love / Tell me, do you feel the way my past aches? / When you lay on me, can you hear the way my heart breaks?” Equal parts explanation and apology, “My Little Love” uses Greg Kurstin’s solemn production to meander its way through the inner workings of Adele’s brain and heart. She eschews the belting in favor of more understated displays of her increased vocal flexibility. Above all, “My Little Love” is honest art at the highest level.
9. “Off The Grid” (Kanye West, Playboi Carti & Fivio Foreign)
Kanye attempted to do it all on Donda. Sometimes things went horribly awry, and sometimes, as in the case of “Off The Grid,” he struck gold. Only Kanye could make the toddler-esque squawks of Playboi Carti sound palatable. He pairs Carti with a menacing drill beat which sets up a nice juxtaposition against Fivio’s towering show-stealing verse and Kanye’s own slightly humorous contributions. As much as contrarians may like to say otherwise, Fivio is the clear star of this track. His lengthy verse pulls from his own incarceration and his outlook on his life and legacy. “If you got a voice, then you gotta project it / If you got a wrong, then you gotta correct it / If you got a name, then you gotta protect it,” he preaches. Kanye’s greatest strengths have always lied in his ability to curate the best artists to bring his beats and vision to life, and “Off The Grid” is one of the clearest examples of that. The three artists on this track come from different lanes, cities, and eras, but Kanye finds a way to make it work and make magic in the process.
8. “Bodies (Intro)” (Jazmine Sullivan)
The boozy opener to Jazmine’s seminal Heaux Tales, which landed the #1 spot on both my Mid-Year and Year-End Best Albums rankings, is among the best songs of the year despite it simply being an intro. “Bodies,” sets the scene for Heaux Tales’ unabashed discussions on sex, Black womanhood, and life with lyrics like “And my mama wouldn’t like it if she knew about / All my rendezvous’ and all my whereabouts.” Layers of Jazmine’s vocals swirl in the background as they represent the different voices in her head telling her to get together, emulating how outsiders may judge her, and trying to recount the fuzzy night that led to her current predicament. “Bodies” does the impossible. It sets up storylines at the macro and micro levels without feeling incomprehensible or inaccessible. Oh, and of course, Jazmine sounds insane.
7. “family ties” (Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar)
Baby Keem is different. His sound is divisive and his adjacence to nepotism doesn’t do him any favors, but the guy is a genuinely good artist. The Melodic Blue was one of the most challenging records of the year, and “family ties,” the album’s fourth single, is among the best tracks of the year. Granted, when you have Kendrick Lamar on a song, he’s almost always going to end up the best part of the track. Keem holds his own, but Kendrick’s mind-boggling verses and brain-bending flow switches sound like how watching a highly competitive sporting event feels. Kendrick casts himself in the legacy of deities and 70s R&B legends, and he does it all while shouting out Megan Thee Stallion and alluding to the falsification of streaming numbers in the industry. Is there a lot going on? Yes. But the song gives you a rush, which is more than a lot of tracks can say nowadays.
6. “How Much Can A Heart Take” (Lucky Daye featuring Yebba)
Lucky Daye’s Table for Two EP may have been a bit uneven, but at least it gifted us the best R&B duet of the year. On “How Much Can A Heart Take,” Lucky and Yebba marry their buttery tones into one gorgeous sound. As the EP’s opening track, “How Much Can A Heart Take” rejects formalities and jumps right into its examination of a relationship on the brink of demise. In my review of the EP, I noted how Yebba sings “and then you turn around and blame it on the moon/Just ’cause you’re feelin’ blue,” in a sly reversal of the typical moon-mood-behavior metaphor we encounter in music. This moment is still subtle and still glorious all these months later. From “Over” to “Running Blind,” Lucky rarely missed this year — and this was his best offering of all.
5. “Red Room” (Hiatus Kaiyote)
Nai Palm’s voice is priceless. The way she is able to become increasingly frantic without ever losing control of her instrument is simply masterful. “Red Room,” the clear standout from Hiatus Kaiyote’s Mood Valiant album, starts off as a tender attempt at manifestation before transitioning into an overwhelming instance of panic, fear, desperation, and subtle lust. “Red Room” is the kind of song that you lose yourself in. Every chord attaches itself to a different string of your heart before lifting you away into a red room of your own. Don’t believe me? Hit the play button.
4. “Who Want Smoke??” (Nardo Wick, G Herbo, Lil Durk & 21 Savage)
“Who Want Smoke” was already a winner with the counting motif, stomping sound effects, and endlessly quotable verses. This remix, however? Consider the ante upped. My favorite thing about the “Who Want Smoke” remix is the union of 21 Savage and Nardo Wick — two rappers that fearlessly lean into the macabre to tell their grim stories and anecdotes. 21 Savage is no stranger for this, he did curate an EP for a horror movie after all, but the menacing drawl of their tones pair exceptionally well together. In addition, Savage, Herbo, and Durk all retain the counting motif in their respective verses which is a nice choice. Nonetheless, “Who Want Smoke” excels because it’s a posse cut that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
3. “Good Days” (SZA)
The #1 song on my Mid-Year ranking, SZA’s “Good Days” is still enrapturing over a year later. Although she’s on her hatred tip right now, the earnest optimism and faith of “Good Days” held us together for at least the first half of the year before we inevitably unraveled all over again. Upon release, I called this track a “murky guitar-laced tour de force of religious imagery, nostalgia, and hope.” I’m happy to report that the song is still exactly that. In fact, “Good Days” hasn’t changed at all, but the added context of 2021 and “I Hate U” cast the song in a new light. The “good days” aren’t ever really going to come. The very act of choosing to believe in their existence is what grants us the comfort that the “good days” are supposed to bring. When you understand this, you understand why SZA sounds so content on this track. It’s not because the good days are here, it’s because she still believes in them in spite of the world around her.
2. “Happier Than Ever” (Billie Eilish)
One thing about Billie Eilish and FINNEAS, they’re going to structure the hell out of a song. Already one of the best songs of Billie’s career, “Happier Than Ever” is the kind of crowning achievement that many artists spent their entire careers searching for. Beginning as a destitute acoustic ballad, “Happier Than Ever” finds Billie unpacking just how deep her ex-boyfriend’s lack of care ran. She puts it quite plainly with “you clearly werеn’t aware that you made me misеrable.” It’s the song’s rousing second half, however, that really cuts to the core. Billie belts out the sweeping melody over a mixture of raucous guitars and drums that culminate into purgative guttural screams and shouts. Ultimately, the true beauty of “Happier Than Ever” lies in the fact that this song cannot truly exist without the presence of both parts. Fingers crossed we get more of this sound from Billie on the next album.
1. “Bloody Samaritan” (Ayra Starr)
Here it is. Black Boy Bulletin’s #1 Song of 2021 is Ayra Starr’s “Bloody Samaritan.” You’ve probably heard this song on TikTok, or at least the choral cover, but this song is so much bigger than that. Introduced with dramatic strings, Ayra flips the concept of the good Samaritan on its head and introduces the bloody Samaritan — detractors that disguise themselves as good Samaritans to gain your trust before hurting you. The thumping drums and brass ground Ayra’s mélange of neo-soul vocal stylings, hip-hop rhythms, and Afropop production. She’s assertive and direct in a way that feels effortless: “I see you watching my stories / I see you gauging my lifestyle / I see you watching my movements / This bad bitch bad every day.” The tempo is fairly moderate, but Ayra rips through the track with a ferocity that lifts the main melody to unforeseeable heights. Above all, this was the song we needed most in 2021. At every turn and at every level, there was something that was trying to stop us dead in our tracks and keep up from being our best and fullest selves. 2021 wasn’t easy by any means, but with Ayra’s “dem no fit kill my vibe” battle cry in our palms, the year had no choice but to bend to our wills.