My Top Albums of 2021

(In no particular order!)

By Cammy Thomas

I know you’re reading the title and thinking – Are you in a Christmas coma Cam, are you lost in festive purgatory aka the limbo land week between Christmas and New year? The answer to that question is, musically – pretty much! Musically speaking, I figured as long as I publish this piece before we take our tinsel down and box up our baubles before bad luck strikes on the 6th day of January (ok I didn’t make that deadline so I’m moving goal posts and aiming before the end of Jan), then it’s all good, and I’m permitted to sneak in these lingering Christmas crackers, before we all crack on with our lockdown free 2022’s, so without further ado, sip on my perfectly brewed mulled wine of belated musical highlights of 2021, and let them warm your tune buds deep into 2022!

‘Space and Time’, By Justine Skye & Timbaland

From the moment Missy Elliot’s right hand man and superstar producer Timbaland contacted Justine Skye to riff and vibe on some incomplete demos in his studio a few years ago, I’d kept my eye on the sweet music they were making released in a series of snippets from their studio sessions. I knew the two could not stop there and the collection of songs just HAD to have an official release in the form of a cohesive long play album. It seems like I wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines, as the demand from fans saw their creative process come to fruition with the release of the best R&B album of 2021; ‘Space and Time’. The album is a one size fits all collection, in the same vein as Keri Hilson’s ‘No Boys allowed’, with Justine striking the perfect balance between sass and class. She sweetly sings on jams ‘We’ and ‘Hey Sucka’, else where she delivers a feisty girls anthem on the track ‘In My Bag’, she also brings sultry vocals to ‘Hypnotized’ and ‘About Time’.

The sultry yet classy, Justine Skye

Justine manages to deliver a strong and balanced album which explores love woes and curing them with good time jams as she demonstrates her ability to adjust her vocals to fit an array of moods! Both Justine and Timbaland excel on the tracks ‘Do It Right’ which samples 90’s R&B mega stars Jodeci’s ‘Freek N U’. My favourite on the album, ‘Innocent’ Ft. Justin Timberlake is a modern duet melding sweet undertones and sour overtones, as Justine and Justin duke it out and trade summer breeze vocals with lyrics detailing the indiscretions of both singers, as they get into character to accuse the other of perceived betrayals. The song is elevated to dazzling duet status, with the interpolation of Aaliyah’s SMASH hit (produced by Timbaland of course) ‘If your Girl Only Knew’. Timbaland’s platinum beats married with Justine’s feminine and sultry R&B vocals, places ‘Space and Time’ as a modern-day R&B classic.

Read my long form review for ‘Space and Time’ Below:

‘Conflict of Interest’, By Ghetts

If ever there was an album title to describe my little journey within the most energetic and exciting genre in the UK, this title is perfect to sum up my writing, promotional and events work within the grime scene, working alongside and meeting the best in the business. One of the artists I had the absolute pleasure of meeting briefly at stalwart Sharky Major’s game changing Grime Originals events (shouts to Sharky and the team); was Ghetts. Meeting Ghetts left me feeling the way I feel when I listen to one of Ghetts’ bulging back catalogues – Deeply impacted. ‘Conflict of Interest’ released February 2021, remains faithful to Ghetts’ Grime roots, as he delivers his truths and observations from the soul, often in a raw and hard-hitting style in keeping with grime’s blunt and unapologetic essence. As a veteran of the grime scene, and an overall talented artist with an acute musical ear, Ghetts is also able to deliver his bars in a charismatic or understated way, against the backdrop of an assortment of genres such as the gospel strains of ‘Fine Wine’, or the South East African vibe coupled with the West Coast riff Dr Dre made popular in 1990’s hip hop, heard on the tracks ‘Mozambique’ and ‘Hop Out’. Ghetts has matured into a bonefide genre hopper, who is able to switch his flow and wrap his words around any beat effortlessly. Ghetts talents sees him seamlessly transform from skeng man to man of god at rapid rates. Ghetts has an innate, almost sixth sense understanding of the spiritual warfare within himself and others, as he offers the tools within his music to overcome life’s many challenges as he draws from his own personal experiences of traumas and triumphs. Never one to shy away from the topics people swerve swiftly, Ghetts and Skepta tackle black identity and tough starts growing up in the UK’s marginalised boroughs on the brilliant social commentary on the track, ‘IC3’ (aka black male, in police speak). Both Skepta and Ghetts deliver some stinging bars which quite frankly needed to be uttered, case in point “Don’t tell me to go back where I came from, when the Queen sits there in stolen jewels; cool”. Ghetts and Skepta echo just a few of the frustrations felt by sectors within our society, and it’s refreshing to hear two grime veterans state their truths so boldly.

The gifted gully meets godly, Ghetts

Elsewhere on ‘Conflict of Interest’, Ghetts gifts us with 6 minutes of pure, honest lyricism as he becomes the author of his journey on the low-key track ‘Autobiography’, against contorted female vocals and violins on the outro, Ghetts reminds us “If you don’t tell your story someone else will tell it for you.” Ghetts’ sublime artistry, which has recently earned him a BRIT award nomination for Best rap/Best grime artist, lies in the fact he’s cultivated his 3 persona’s Ghetts, Ghetto and Justin expertly over a career spanning two decades. He’s able to bring each iteration of his character to the forefront when the track requires it, or at times we get a blend of all 3! We hear Justin baring his soul throughout the album on the mature and classy ‘Proud Family’, ‘Sonya’ and’10,000 Tears’, each of the three tracks showcase Ghetts’ growth, as he’s flourished into a multi-faceted introspective artist. Ghetts also satisfies his day 1 fans who have been with him since 2014’s ‘Rebel with a cause’ and 2008’s ‘Freedom of Speech’, by tempting Ghetto to emerge from the shadows to spit heat on the tracks ‘Mercy’, ‘Crud’ and the Sin City inspired, visually STUNNING ‘Skeng man Mode’. ‘Conflict of Interest’ further establishes Ghetts as a true master of his craft, as we marvel at his finite balance of gully meets godly!

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, By Little Simz

The “Picasso with a pen” South London rapper and nominee of 4, yes FOUR BRIT Awards, has been on my radar since her 2016 ‘Stillness in Wonderland’ release, and from watching her mesmerising performance as support act for Kano on his ‘Made in the Manor’ tour. After watching her perform in 2017, I decided one day Little Simz would be a big deal and would be sure to attain recognition for her talents on both sides of the Atlantic. Turns out I was right, because Simz is shining! Little Simz released an undisputed masterpiece with her fourth studio album ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’, an album which embraces all shades of Simbi’s persona, whether that be confident expressive artiste, or low-key thinker. The bombastic orchestra backed opener ‘Introvert’ and the cinematic foray of ‘Point and Kill’, showcases an artist who has grown creatively and is more self-assured than ever before, as it’s clear Little Simz is now comfortable in her introversion and sees this as her superpower as she recently explained.

Introverted and supremely talented, Little Simz

‘Simz leaves no genre untouched as she traverses a myriad of soundscapes on ‘S.I.M.B.I’, from the jazzy soul celebration of ‘Women’ worldwide, the off kilter punkish wails of ‘Speed’, the retro 80’s psychedelia of ‘Protect My Energy’, the old school soul complete with resplendent horns on ‘Standing ovation’, and the exquisitely executed sample of Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ heard on ‘Two Worlds Apart’, it feels as though Little Simz has travelled back in time and brought all the best elements back with her from the 1960’s and 70’s soul which has you craving simpler times and nostalgic vibes. Something Little Simz does very well which we rarely hear on rap or soul albums, is infusing her album with slivers of musical theatre, heard on the album’s interludes, firmly planting the album as unique and otherworldly, which is a great way to sum up the artist and the album, which I often refer to as ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ of this century

Read my long form review for ‘Sometimes I might Be Introvert’ below:

‘Kings Disease II’, By Nas

Let’s be clear, the ‘Illmatic’, ‘Stillmatic’ has still got it, as East Coast rapper Nasir Jones excels on his outstanding 13th album release ‘Kings Disease II’ (He’s already dropped a 14th release before the clocks chimed to welcome 2022!) ‘Kings Disease II’ unfurls like an artist bestowed with the coveted G.O.A.T* title by hip hop fans worldwide, opening his trophy cabinet gazing at rows of accolades, gleaming back at him, each engraved award evoking a misty-eyed memory from his 33-year career. But as he looks a little closer, there are scratches on the engraving and dents in the jewels of this king’s crown, as Nas opts to bare some painful memories which feel visceral to the listener. The profound feeling of sorrow arises when we hear, ‘Death Row East’. Nas shares that his affiliate Stretch did not set up the much-missed slain rapper Tupac Shakur. Nas candidly reveals he and West coast rapper, Tupac, were about to shoot a video for a track together in an attempt to quash the East coast/West coast beef, and had multiple collaborations planned. The end of the track gave me goosebumps as a soundbite is played from Nas’ concert at Nassau Coliseum, New York in September 1996, where he stopped his concert to announce the death of Tupac Shakur. To hear this moment at the end of Nas’ lyrical tribute to Tupac was shocking and deeply profound, it leaves you aware the revelations will add historical context to hip hop’s infamous era, delivered by one of the most lyrically gifted rappers in existence.

Hip Hop G.O.A.T and legend Nas

Elsewhere on the album we get to experience what happens when two rap G.O.A.T.S trade verses, as Eminem and Nas join forces on, ‘EPMD 2’ to cause cyclones of the cranium kind, as your brain is swept up in the swirl of lyrics and carried off to a milky way of metaphors! The track ‘Moments’ takes you on a journey of Nas’ three-decade career where he shares the time is now to work with featured artists and celebrate the new leaders of hip hop, having avoided featured artists on his previous albums. The production by Hit-Boy is old school smooth soul (ala Curtis Mayfield), and it’s heart-warming to hear Nas shoutout the people who inspired him during his career such as Muhammed Ali, Run DMC, Spike Lee, Sista Soulja. To punctuate the point, Nas juxtaposes his career highlights with special moments we’ve all experienced – “Like taking your first swim, like still being a virgin, taking training wheels of the rims, moving in your first crib while having your first kid”. The album’s second half hosts songbird queen, Ms. Lauryn Hill as she reunites with Nas on the track ‘Nobody’, 26 years after their social politically charged, first collab – ‘If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)’, their timbre’s sound richer as their voices have matured with the passing of time, sounding just as good together here as they did back then. ‘Composure’ is full of uplifting horns and sprawling piano’s making the track feel grandiose and nostalgic, the timeless production harks back to Kanye Wests’ production on Jay Z’s 2001 ‘Blueprint’ album. At ‘Kings Disease II’ close, Nas hits a home run on the church organ shrouded, ‘My Bible’ as Nas delivers pearls of wisdom, as he has done for his entire career, and we hear a king pay homage to the queens – “This chapter called women, ya’ll been the rib since the beginning, a woman’s intuition is what a man is missing, to understand the wisdom is something I had to learn, somehow you the most unprotected on planet earth”. This lyric is poignant and layered, and I found myself thinking, yep Esko still got bars!

*G.O.A.T = Greatest of All Time (not the farmyard animal Meryl Streep thought Jonah Hill was terming her while they filmed ‘Don’t Look Up’ causing her to think she had the face of a goat!)

‘Anti Systemic’, By Wiley

Now we move from Escobar to Eskiboy Wiley. Whether you agree with Wiley’s views or not, one thing is for sure, if he didn’t express his views in the brash and impulsive way he does, he wouldn’t be Wiley. There are feats only an unconventional artist like Wiley can pull off, like assembling a grime justice league of old school dons such as Preshus and DJ Slimzee (on my fav track ‘DJ Slimzee’) and new gen. artists. The album title demonstrates Wiley’s wordsmith credentials with a play on the words ‘Anti-Semitic’, a label which has been slung Wiley’s way in a barrage of accusations at a disproportionate rate by mainstream media, (Ahem – Perhaps mainstream media should investigate whether Prince Andrews sweat glands have magically repaired themselves and kicked in since his mates’ incarceration.) But back to the music, the album cover is the very definition of, a picture can say a thousand words. The animated cover shows Wiley with face mask, as police encircle in riot gear, clutching batons preparing to take aim at Wiley. The dystopian cover translates as literal and figurative, depicting many countries around the world facing draconian restrictions enforced by the law of their lands, by governments whom we are told, want to protect us. Another interpretation is the image is an allegory for the fact Wiley himself has been muffled; and muted in places. It’s a stark image alluding to censorship, and the decline of freedom of speech, a hotly debated topic of late, Wiley’s use of the symbol of censorship – the facemask, on the album’s cover art, demonstrates the sign of the times, and Wiley’s current predicament simultaneously.

Enigmatic and experimental, ‘Godfather’ Wiley

With a career spanning over two decades Wiley is no longer relegated to waiting for a ‘Night Bus’, he can now board his very own ‘Tour Bus’, the opening track makes a statement with double time kicks, and teasing keyboard wails, Wiley slices through intermittent silences with boasty bars – “The history I’ve made cannot be erased, it’s embedded, that’s why I’m not fazed, If I never had no genre I woulda been dazed…”. Elsewhere Wiley indulges in self-aggrandisement on ‘Aint Gonna Fold’ over a threatening bass as Wiley spits “I’m so clued up, I might appear mad, that’s the balance of my mum and my dad”, Wiley’s pacing and delivery remains agile throughout. ‘Anti Systemic’ is a winner for Wiley, as he succeeds in recruiting seasoned artists, alongside students of the craft showcased on the greazy, ‘Crack City’, Ft. Capo Lee, Faultsz, Tia Talks, K9, Scrufizzer and ‘Tell Them Again’ Ft. JME, Tommy B & Mez, where Wiley dives into his own back catalogue to subtlety sample ‘Night bus’ riddim. The sax assisted ‘When Your Gone’ slows the tempo, and we hear a softer side to usually feisty Queen Millz, as always, Laughta and SBK do not disappoint. Wiley again expertly pairs artists who complement each other’s styles with Roxxx and FFSYTHO delivering hot sauce features on the sexually charged; ‘Yo Yo’. Wiley addresses his current situation on subdued ‘Economy’, as he asks, “How can they crucify me online…before I was born, we already were divided…sorry my brothers we got misguided”. If ‘Economy’ is subdued, then penultimate track ‘Move Goal Posts’ is looming grey clouds billowing with truths! Over a sorrowful synth, Wiley is refreshingly self-aware as he recognises, he can be hard to manage. He also explores the fact his online presence is zero, forcing him to go back to basics by using offline methods to enable him to share his music, which in a sense is the circle of grime, as Wiley’s reliance on the D.I.Y methods is what defined the genre he pioneered with affiliates. Wiley’s resilience is apparent, as he urges listeners to consider whether rules and restrictions have been enforced to confuse, and invites you to have a respite from pandora’s pandemic box – “You wan’ swine flu? you wan’ SARS? Or You wanna ‘ear some of these bars”. Wiley has fully embraced his role as ‘Godfather’ on ‘Anti Systemic’, as he guides his god children to greatness!

Long may these absolute BANGERS make your speakers shudder, as you sizzle your seasoned chickens, and flip your burgers on BBQ’s across the nation, in the summer of 2022! Happy New Year all, make it count!

Photo Credits, Artist individual head shots: Justine Skye – Getty Images, Ghetts – Ghetts own, Nas – The Press of Atlantic City – Vincent Jackson, Little Simz – Nwaka Okparaeke, Wiley – ?