2021: Year Of The UK Music Underdog

After 2020 put much of the music industry (and wider life) to the sword, 2021 represented a long and winding return to normalcy. Still in a relative period of flux and readjustment, this year has largely seen the devastating effects of COVID-19 slowly but surely ease, with many of UK music’s biggest acts back on stage, both home and away, interacting with fans and reaching new creative heights in their output. The new Omicron variant of Covid may yet hamper this still, but the scene has wholly refused to be stifled by forces out of its control this year, and it showed.

Making a case for 2021’s MVP, legendary MC Ghetts set pace early with his third studio album, Conflict Of Interest, released in February. An ambitious and thoroughly rewarding effort, it stands tall as the East Londoner’s finest and one of the UK’s greatest albums in a generation. Fighting him for that MVP spot, however, was North London’s own Little Simz, who reached an astonishing new artistic peak with new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert in September. Expansive, lavish and beautifully constructed, S.I.M.B.I’s endearing tale of self-discovery and finding comfort in one’s own skin stood out as a pillar of 2021, removing all doubt that Simz is one of the best to ever do it on these shores.

South London titan Dave continued to cement his legacy with his own album of the year contender, sophomore effort We’re All Alone In This Together. An opus rich in storytelling, it proved Santan is still only getting started in his journey to greatness. Bonus points also go to him for unleashing a posse cut for the ages in “In The Fire”, with Fredo, Meekz Manny, Ghetts and Giggs rhyming some of their finest rhymes.

Meanwhile, after securing the first UK number one single for a drill song in “Body”, Tion Wayne took that momentum forward on debut album Green With Envy, the culmination of a near decade-long grind that places him on the table of UK rap’s elite. In fact, 2021 marked a banner year for drill music across the board, with the likes of Digga D, Central Cee, M1llionz, Unknown T, K-Trap, V9 and Blanco all playing their part in fortifying a scene that, despite encroachment from the powers that be dead bent on its demise, has only become more refined with time.

Not that drill has been the only sound having fun this year. Grime energy was on 100 throughout, with Boy Better Know stalwarts Jme, Frisco and Shorty teaming up with young vet Capo Lee to drop collaborative tape Norf Face, and lone ranger Manga Saint-Hilaire demonstrating unlevelled consistency with his Glow In The Dark and Future Duluxe projects. Cultural tour de force Big Zuu had his coronation moment with the release of Navigate, his debut album, while Chip, D Double E, Mez and Novelist also proved grime still has plenty to say.

While the possibilities for UK R&B have long been debated, 2021 demonstrated that it continues to gain more stature, with Ray BLK, Jorja Smith, Cleo Sol, Sinead Harnett, Ama Lou and more adding their two cents to set the genre up for what could be a breakthrough 2022 with a string of projects pushing the sonic boundaries of the genre.

All the while, genre-fluid artists such as Children of Zeus, PinkPantheress, Arlo Parks, Ragz Originale and Kadiata, and jazz polymaths Sons of Kemet, Alfa Mist, Venna and Nubya Garcia added their powers to the UK’s vast music ecosystem. Add releases by slowthai, Headie One, Potter Payper, KAM-BU, DC, Shaybo and BERWYN and you have a year where, despite regaining the freedom COVID had robbed them, a legion of artists homed in on their album making powers, streamlining their artistry in the process.

At this point, the phrase ‘the UK scene is in a good place’ is almost akin to a broken record, but as it continues to soar, it’s only right to acknowledge how far it has come. From top to bottom, from mainstream to underground, we are cultivating greatness, a fact made clearer by the scene’s depth and success. We will continue to move with purpose as 2022 dawns, and very little will stop the wave.

Editor’s Note: The playlist below is in no particular order.

Posted on December 22, 2021