You’ve got to treasure the small victories. Americans may still disregard the pandemic just enough for the reemergence of ever more transmissible coronavirus strains, but at least rappers stopped releasing “quarantine tapes” and got back to fully realized projects this year.
Listening back over the triumphs from the Twin Cities hip-hop scene this year, the creative outbursts and revelations aren’t easy to categorize, but you can’t call them “small.” Here are five releases from 2021—EPs, albums, mixtapes—to check out if you haven’t already.
Over roving beats that lift samples and draw inspiration from classic soul, this Minneapolis rapper explores both sides of breakups—the serious and the much less so. The trap-tinged production on Nakara Forjé’s #lovehangover2, released in November, leans on the funk tradition, its tracks slow enough for an unrushed two-step but slyly orchestrated so you can also bust a move—or switch from simply grooving to suddenly head-snapping along. With features from local talents like Destiny Roberts and Saint Laron, #lovehangover2 is multifaceted, much more than a bile-stank screed against those Forjé feels have failed her. She spits from a knowing, what-comes-up-etc. posture, aware that “hot girl summer,” as she says, always gives way to “old bitch winter.”
If you’ve got the subwoofer for it (or just a powerful car stereo), this Minneapolis rapper has got the bass-rattling goods for cruising around with a steady, swaggy diddy-bop. Knucky gets real on POV, which dropped in April, spitting about ups and downs on “Make the Most” (featuring Minneapolis MC Mistah Maeham), rapping about how anything that doesn’t lead to money can sit on the back burner on “In a Minute.” Taking lumps in stride, according to Knucky, looks like bumping and bopping along proudly with a forearm or flexed bicep in the air. Knucky’s flow is straightforward and clean, and the production on POV is boom-bap on steroids, making for traditional hip hop that still feels present and forward-looking.
Brooklyn Park’s Ameen Taahir has an effortless flow and a flair for persona. He’s s goofball whose exacting bars, melodic stylings, and lyrical profundity are less a surprise element of his loopy, care-free songs than the source from which they spring. Taahir’s full-length album, released in March, has beats that rely on oddly pitched and no less oddly appealing synths or, as on “Edge” (featuring Ocean Kelly from Atlanta), a trebly percussion sound resembling a steel drum mated with a cowbell. “Jump the Gun” is a special treat: Taahir layers choppy bars with a more singy flow before breaking into a fully sung Auto-Tuned hook.
The Lioness has this enthralling ability to spit at a pressing pace that never veers out of control. A veteran in the Minneapolis rap game, she wastes not a solitary moment on gemINI (released in February), immediately grabbing the listener’s ear with supremely smooth bars over pulsing, sparse instrumentation. The Lioness’s flow has a special whisper-spitting gear, allowing her to airily relay her thoughts on tracks like “FIGHT | FLIGHT” and “RESPOND | REACT,” in a measured tone that’s still in your face with certitude and authority. Then at times, like at the end of “RESPOND | REACT,” she torques the throttle and speeds up a spate of bars, going zero to 200 without a bump, pouncing and sprinting like the wind.
On this February EP, Ethatsall operates with a level of self-awareness that drives them to another plane of existence. On “Lust,” about the sobering but sometimes liberating realization that a fling is not at all about love, Ethatsall, in a deeply satisfying voice that’s Auto-Tune-sanded but grungy, acknowledges that they aren’t emotionally in a place to offer much more than desire. “I hate me too, this shit is trendy as fuck/Sorry, I say sorry too much,” they rap-croon, acknowledging their self-loathing as well as how boring it is in today’s faux-emo-rap world to make everything into a song about self-loathing.
Exiting earthly realities in favor of more abstract feelings, for Ethatsall, goes in a direction many a rapper has gone before—into a synth-laden cauldron of wailing and melodramatically dark aesthetics. Ethatsall’s winking bars are a nice salve and the rapper switches up production to include some electric guitar, but the real takeaway is their amazing ability to harness Auto-Tune. It’s an art few can pull off, but Ethatsall has the chops, on full display in “Titos,” a wonderfully silly sing- or hum-along track about how “the only thing that I love is Titos cuz he’s so great at stroking my ego”— and it comes with one of the more stunning debut music videos around.