RJ Payne is not yet a household name, unless your home is a trap house full of emcees, microphones and Hip-Hop junkies. Heads of state like Eminem, Ice-T, Royce Da 5’ 9”, and numerous other dignitaries have extolled the lyrical virtue of one RJ Payne. The rapper, who hails from Philly, but has spent significant time in New York City, has managed to outwork and outshine his peers. In 2021, he released “Beautiful Payne” and “Leatherface 3: There Will Be Blood” and left hardcore fans on edge as he teased “If Cocaine Could Talk 7: Nino’s Revenge”. The latter release included features from Redman, Ransom, Flee Lord, Shyheim, JoJo Pellegrino, UFO Fev, Inspectah Deck, Ras Kass, Apathy and producers like Stu Bangas, Havoc, Termanology, Vanderslice, P.A. Dre, Nicholas Craven, and more. These releases and this acclaims do not tell the complete story.
The aforementioned legends have all been blown away by Payne’s aggressive, hyper lyrical and punchline laden style of rapping. But the two projects from 2021 are essentially a gateway drug in this era of streaming and word-of-mouth. Anybody that hears Payne on any of his numerous features are guaranteed to go down the never-ending rabbit hole of mixtapes, guest appearances and sporadic songs that have come out at feverish rate. Similarly, the co-signs are just the tip of the iceberg. Lyrically, RJ Payne explodes out of the lineage of great spitters like DMX, Big Pun, Kool G Rap, Big L, Canibus, but lines up with today’s legends like Mickey Factz, Ransom, Royce Da 5′ 9″, Papoose, Conway The Machine, Benny The Butcher and Westside Gunn, among many others.
Moving into 2022, we’ll have to see if Payne actually signs a deal with a major player like Dr. Dre or Eminem or if he maintains his indie status with his Educated Ignorance Music Group. Ice-T has signed on with “If Cocaine Could Talk 7: Nino’s Revenge” and the West Coast OG has previously told AllHipHop’s Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur he intends to introduce the younger gunner to Compton’s more famous doc. The future is more than bright for RJ Payne and he has promised never to run out of lyrics. So, he may have yet to attain the widespread market penetration that others have, he’s destined to come to a hood near you like his crack in the 80s. Its Payne!
Editor’s note: A few artists could have been in that top slot, but Payne has been that contender, ala Clubber Lang, yelling at the champs for a shot from the title. They may not want to give him that chance. Well, the prediction is: pain.
THE REST OF THE BEST
Conway The Machine
Conway The Machine is now a staple, a force so mighty, the game changed under his will (along with Benny and Westside). La Maquina was Conway’s best, most complete album thus far, and in 2021 that kept him steadily rising outside of his core audience. On it, he employed different flows and eased back off the punchlines a bit, making his artistry feel more natural. If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed, with blogger-turned-producer Big Ghost, served up exactly what the fans expect from the Buffalo rhyme slinger. These projects and numerous guest features kept Conway at the top of the pile, representing us at a high level.
Benny The Butcher
“The Butcher Coming, ni##a!”
News flash: The Butcher is here. Like his counterpart, Conway The Machine, Benny The Butcher more than maintained his dominance at the upper echelons of hardcore rap. However, we saw him throw numerous jabs in 2021 in the form of The Plugs I Met 2 (a collaboration with Harry Fraud), Pyrex Picasso and Trust the Sopranos (with 38 Spesh). With them, Benny did not lose a single square inch of his spot, but advanced it enough to get him a highly-anticipated release with Def Jam Records.
Mumu Fresh presented Hip-Hop with its highest self in 2021. The Queen, whose real name is Maimouna Youssef, had the most impressive album roll out with her career-defining opus, QUEEN OF CULTURE: VINTAGE BABIES II. The album was a collaboration with DJ Dummy and the pair continued to plow down convention, stretch the collective mind of the audience and throw sharp elbows in a ridiculously crowded rap market. She put it down, melding her lyrical excellence coupled with supreme visual sensibilities as seen on “North Star” with D Smoke or “Rap God,” a definitive, unapolegetically Black proclamation.
Russ went and did it. The early verdict on Chomp 2 is a certified banger. The co-signs alone tell the respect he garners. We’re talking features by Ransom, Papoose, The Game, Styles P, Jadakiss (AllHipHop’s 2021 Person of the Year), Westside Gunn, Big K.R.I.T., Snoop Dogg, Jay Electronica, Big Sean, Wale, Ghostface Killah, Cyhi The Prynce, Mozzy, Joey Badass, Conway The Machine, and Lloyd Banks. And on every song, Russ bars it up with these greats. He doesn’t get washed and he effectively put the gods of rap on notice that he is here and he wants full respect for what he’s accomplished.
Boldy James is proof that you don’t have to be tearing down the mic in order to be a top-tier lyricist. His slow, monotone flow can mask deeply intricate bars with tremendous depth. Last year was the true break-out year for Boldy, which included a Grammy nomination for the Detroit native. 2021 was nothing to sneeze at though. His unique drip and delivery still go hard with the wordplay and subtle cleverness. Bo Jackson (August) and Super Tecmo Bo (December) were recorded with The Alchemist, one of the best producers of numerous eras. The two of them are a cheat code to greatness.
Millyz doesn’t sound like Biggie Smalls, Mobb Deep, D-Block, Boosie or Project Pat, but when you hear him spit, you can tell he has studied the greats. The Boston-spitter pour all that he has experienced into his music. Always lyrical, he melds his high-level lyricism into songs that resonate on an emotional level. He’s definitely from the streets, but he does not glamourize his experiences. He wears sincerity well, all the while linking with pillars like Jadakiss, G-Herbo, Jim Jones and Dave East. Pablo & Blanco (album with Dave East) and Blanco IV put him on the rocket to success from 2021 into 2022.
Ransom made it clear in 2021 that he feels like he is the best lyricist and was willing to do whatever he had to do to prove it. His IG bio even boldly proclaims, “I’m the greatest rapper alive!” He managed to back up all that he bragged about. He dropped Se7en with assists by Lloyd Banks, Royce da 5’9″, LX Wulf, j.Arrr, Nicholas Craven, V Don, Lord Sear, Chup The Producer and 38 Spesh. It was his 5th full-length album that became his definitive work thus far, Heavy Is The Head. Jersey City emcee and Big Ghost Ltd. joined force to cook up a classic. Ran ended the year off with Coup de Grâce, an album with Griselda Records signee Rome Streetz.
Unlike a lot of artists on this list, GRIP did not release numerous projects in 2021. He release one total work, I Died For This!?. However, that project was both a silver bullet and a portal for the uninitiated. It put GRIP’s creativity, lyricism and willingness to take big changes on full display. And for those that were not fully familiar with the Atlanta native, its highly likely fans went back to visit Halo (2020), Snubnose (2019) or Porch (2017). In 2021, as a Shady Records capo, GRIP built a big bridge to success with Royce Da 5′ 9″ and Eminem. And there was also Big Rube just so we all know, nothing can change even when everything does.
Lakeyah did not come into 2021 for play. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin native released her LP debut In Due Time in April and definitively proved that she has the potential to be a huge star. And, with features by Gucci Mane and Young Bleu, she made it clear she can rock with the big boys. Later, in September, she release her Gangsta Grillz project My Time and really made a statement on her third Quality Control Music album. The album featured Tyga, Moneybagg Yo, Bankroll Freddie, and lots of DJ Drama ad-libs to puncuate the obvious. Lakeyah is here to stay.