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The Best Songs of 2021 (So Far)

We have a Drake song, but which one? Plus: a few indie favorites, a Young Money throwback, and a manifesto from one of the most interesting rising rappers in the game.

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There’s certainly more cause for optimism than there was at this time last year, but we’re still trying to get back to normal. These 10 songs, however, were able to hold us down during the first six months of the year. Also: Be sure to check out our list of the best albums from the first half of 2021 and this week’s Ringer Music Show, where we break down our favorites.

10. “Thot Shit,” Megan Thee Stallion

In a misogynistic industry in which men often claim ownership over women’s bodies, Megan Thee Stallion asserts her agency on “Thot Shit.” She touches on her awards, rapper beefs, and overall disrespect she’s faced in the past year while rapping circles around everyone in the process. It’s been a trying year for Megan, who was reportedly shot by Tory Lanez and faced disgusting vitriol on the internet. All of this seems to influence this track. Megan is a leading face of the Black women empowerment movement in rap and embodies it in every bar she spits. “Thot Shit” is a warning shot, a declaration, a reminder, and a celebration all in one, and it shows the world that she is not to be played with. —Logan Murdock

9. “American Tterroristt,” RXK Nephew

Where to start with “American Tterroristt,” the conspiracy-laden epic by Rochester, N.Y., eccentric RXK Nephew? The nine-minute track isn’t so much a song as it is a screed—a questioning of everything from religion to the racist education system to Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of electricity to Flava Flav’s continued existence. It’s at times hilarious (“They talking ’bout pray before you eat / Bitch, you eatin’ a dead animal), at other times reprehensible (the bars directed at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett are particularly off-putting). But “American Tterroristt” is never not engaging, even when he’s going in on Jehovah’s Witnesses for umpteenth time or when he declares seven minutes in that he’s looping BossUp’s hypnotic soundscapes yet again because he’s got more to say.

RXK Nephew is not always an easy listen: His songs are short on choruses, his beats often clip, and his aesthetic sits somewhere between Lil B and Wes Craven. There’s also a quality control issue, as he’s dropped five projects in 2021 alone. But “American Tterroristt” is the crown jewel of his young discography. At the very least, I can guarantee you haven’t heard anything quite like it before. —Justin Sayles

8. “Like I Used To,” Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen

Hearing two beloved singer-songwriters as achingly opulent as Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen join forces to harmonize on a chorus as bombastic and agitated as “Sleeping in late like I used to / Crossing my fingers like I used to / Waiting inside like I used to / Avoiding big crowds like I used to” here in this fraught summer of 2021 is almost too much to bear, but this colossal one-off single is just lush and lovely and urgent enough to coax you back into whatever qualifies, for you personally, as the light. “Like I Used To” has apocalyptic slow-dance energy, and it’s ever-so-slightly twangy and thoroughly absorbing, an island in the stream that slowly expands into its own humid continent. We need a full galactic-country duet album and we need it now. —Rob Harvilla

7. “Todo De Ti,” Rauw Alejandro

Summer 2021 has a sinister undercurrent, almost like a dream that’s too good to be true. With static vaccination rates and threatening variants, it’s yet to feel like a true return to normal. For this and many other reasons, a candidate for song of the summer has mostly eluded the U.S. Artists are wary of releasing their best work, the event albums are few and far between, and the hits don’t feel like hits when there are few places to play them.

Thankfully, “Todo De Ti” persists despite the aforementioned roadblocks. The Rauw Alejandro single is too catchy, goofy, and unabashedly upbeat not to try and capture the hearts of multiple nations. Part–bubblegum pop, part synth-infused love story, “Todo De Ti” feels engineered for a world where the dancing is plentiful and the pandemic-induced dread is a bygone thought. For three minutes, Rauw doesn’t seek to do anything revolutionary. Instead, he makes a simple song about thirsting after a hot girl that continues the Hot 100’s recent love affair with the disco and funk sounds of yore. In a summer still on the verge of collapse, “Todo De Ti” is a welcome respite. —Charles Holmes

6. “Gang Signs,” Freddie Gibbs featuring ScHoolboy Q

Gibbs is an infamous dope dealer, or possibly a blaxploitation protagonist, or maybe an armed rabbit on the ScHoolboy Q–assisted “Gang Signs.” It works on any level. Through the past few years, Gibbs has launched himself into the corner of rap’s pantheon where there’s a wing dedicated to Wu-Tang and at least one extra-large gold bust of Big Boi. The man’s on a scorcher. Don’t let the simplicity in the formula (find pocket, live in pocket) fool you, Freddie’s a bad man. On “Gang Signs” he’s got the presence of mind to run a drive-by back—you see, the “n----a hopped up quick, so I had to double back, hit him two times.” Q is likewise steady; he knows who he is and what works (“What he take, sold that, ayy / What he rap, been that, hey”). The combination of the MCs is more than enough. —Lex Pryor

5. “Be Sweet,” Japanese Breakfast

Maybe 2 percent of late-night-show musical performances are worth four minutes of your undivided attention, but Michelle Zauner’s lithe and radiant indie-pop band Japanese Breakfast doing “Be Sweet”—the bombastic highlight of her third album, Jubilee—on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show makes the cut. Every element—propulsive drums, lumpy bass line, chic guitar, glittering keyboards—is in perfect bumptious harmony, and Zauner radiates cheerful charisma and sells the enigmatic drama of lines like “So come and get your woman / Pacify her rage” and earns, as so few songwriters do, the right to claim she was inspired by Janet Jackson. A utopian pool-party jam for a dystopian age, effervescent in its unease, but ah, that’s the way love goes. —Harvilla

4. “Kiss Me More,” Doja Cat featuring SZA

“I feel like fucking something” is a hell of a way to start an opening verse, but the rapper and singer Doja Cat is nothing if not bold. “Kiss Me More,” the lead single for her recently released 14-track third album, Planet Her, is probably the best distillation of what makes her a fitting paragon of these times, both in musical leanings and social foibles. It’s a song about making out (“Sign first, middle, last on the wisdom tooth”). Everybody likes to make out, at some point or another. It references, through tone and lyrics, the works of Olivia Newton-John and Long Beach emblem Snoop Dogg—a combination fit for suburbia. It features the pensive songstress SZA, who provides additional authentication to any skeptic gatekeepers. And it grooves, rattling and pulsing for a smooth three minutes and 29 seconds.

It is also a track that has some details that make it feel overwhelmingly icky. Dr. Luke, the producer whose label Doja signed to at the age of 17, is credited as a cowriter on the song. Kesha said in a 2014 lawsuit that Dr. Luke sexually assaulted her (he has denied this, and in 2016, a judge dismissed her claims). In recent years, the producer has increasingly appeared on tracks under the pseudonyms Made in China, Tyson Trax, and Loctor Duke. I don’t know how much of this to hold against Doja. It’s unclear what level of choice she had in putting him on the track. But I also can’t seem to get it out of my mind whenever I hear “Kiss Me More.” I am, it seems, outnumbered though: It continues to sell voraciously. —Pryor

3. “Seeing Green,” Nicki Minaj featuring Drake and Lil Wayne

“Seeing Green” shouldn’t be as good as it is. It features the three biggest artists of the 2010s, all a half step or more past their prime, rapping over a sample of Heather Headley’s 2005 cover of Shannon Sander’s “In My Mind.” The sight of Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Lil Wayne on the same track in 2021 is enough nostalgia to fuel a certain subset of millennials for days.

The moment Lil Wayne flicks his lighter, it’s as if the three summon the version of themselves that helped turn Young Money into a mini-empire. Lil Wayne’s verse is filled with the dramatics, double-entendres, punch lines, biographical elements, and sound effects that were a hallmark of his mixtape era. Months later, the thought of Wayne being beside himself after rapping the following bars—“Fuck around and knock your flag off, I had to / I wore a gat before a tattoo, I had to / As a matter of fact, I had two”—is far funnier than it has any right to be. “Seeing Green” is most likely the first time Wayne has outrapped Drake and Nicki Minaj on the same track in nearly a decade, but his protégés still make a good showing.

As a New Jerseyan, I appreciate Nicki’s verse alone for its willingness to try and pull off the bar, “I should go cop a new jersey, that’s word to Camden.” The song is so charming that it’s even hard to mind when Drake tries to convince the listeners that tearing his meniscus is in the same league as an NBA player’s injury. “Seeing Green” proves the age-old rule that when you’re starting to get up there in rap, the best thing to do is grab a nice sample and talk your shit until you can’t talk it no more. —Holmes

2. “Rapstar,” Polo G

The image of the rap star has evolved in the four decades the genre has existed, but it’s almost always meant glamour and glitz. In the ’80s, it meant fat gold ropes and a lightning-fast tongue. By the end of the ’90s it meant Cristal bottles and Hype Williams videos. Even in the latter half of the 2010s, when rappers seemed to croon more than they spit and a codeine-induced malaise pervaded the music, there was still a certain aspirationalism—Travis Scott and Drake are not exactly demure artists. But with his breakout single, “Rapstar,” Polo G presents a version of stardom we’re not used to from the kings and queens of hip-hop: He sounds exhausted with fame before he’s truly achieved it. Over the song’s plucky ukulele, he delves into his depression and trauma—“Anxiety killin’ me, I just want to leave Earth / When they ask if I’m OK, it just make everything seem worse,” he raps at one point. But despite these sentiments, the song’s title has been a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Rapstar” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, longer than even Drake, Cardi B, Lil Nas X, and Justin Bieber did with their big hits this year. Polo G may not sound like the type of star we’re used to, but we may be entering a new era in which more start to sound like him. —Sayles

1. “Lemon Pepper Freestyle,” Drake featuring Rick Ross

“Lemon Pepper Freestyle” is best heard at the end of the night when the world is asleep and the grind is ongoing. When your ambition keeps you up past the three bedtimes you set for yourself. When you can simultaneously see success and what it’s doing to those around you. When the goals you set are so important it makes you insecure.

The six-minute song is Drake at his absolute best. Like “Do Not Disturb,” “Deep Pockets,” and “Weston Road Flows,” before it, “Lemon Pepper” is an introspective life update from Aubrey over a soul sample. This time he’s joined by Rick Ross, who serves as a lyrical embodiment of a Dwyane Wade lobbing a pass to LeBron James. Ross dribbles in traffic, fakes left, and throws an alley-oop to Drake. Like South Beach Bron, the King of Rap respectfully takes the ball and proceeds to lead the squad to victory.

Through the next four minutes, Drake touches on pain, wealth, and how the empire will be maintained. He talks about how he feels alone despite the fame—how no amount of money can buy the love he wants—and even ponders his mortality and the imagined crocodile tears at his funeral congregation at Air Canada Centre. On “Lemon Pepper,” Drake is more or less talking out his rhyme pattern, similar to the last few minutes of Tupac’s “Hit ’Em Up.” But instead of yelling how he had sex with your woman or how he’s better than you in every conceivable way over a hard beat, he’s saying it in a softer tone over a quiet storm vibe. Similar to Pac, there’s a vulnerability in Drake’s pitch. Since Scorpion, his last studio album, Drake’s life has been a living vision board. Still, rap’s richest, most commercially successful artist is again figuring out how to deal with it all. And that’s why Drake is so good—no matter how successful or rich he is, he’s able to speak in the language of the common man. You feel like you’re in his shoes, even if you can’t afford them.

That’s why this song is perfect for the first half of 2021. Released in March, on what’s hopefully the back end of a global pandemic, it’s the ideal B-side for our current circumstance. When we’re more likely to be in the house than outside partying, it gives the world one more moment of contemplation; when we experience a newer normal and the grind is ahead of us, it gives us a melodic push to meet the moment. —Murdock