The cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21(WAF1/CIP1) (p21) is a cell-cycle checkpoint effector and inducer of senescence, regulated by p53. Yet, evidence suggests that p21 could also be oncogenic, through a mechanism that has so far remained obscure. We report that a subset of atypical cancerous cells strongly expressing p21 showed proliferation features. This occurred predominantly in p53-mutant human cancers, suggesting p53-independent upregulation of p21 selectively in more aggressive tumour cells. Multifaceted phenotypic and genomic analyses of p21-inducible, p53-null, cancerous and near-normal cellular models showed that after an initial senescence-like phase, a subpopulation of p21-expressing proliferating cells emerged, featuring increased genomic instability, aggressiveness and chemoresistance. Mechanistically, sustained p21 accumulation inhibited mainly the CRL4-CDT2 ubiquitin ligase, leading to deregulated origin licensing and replication stress. Collectively, our data reveal the tumour-promoting ability of p21 through deregulation of DNA replication licensing machinery-an unorthodox role to be considered in cancer treatment, since p21 responds to various stimuli including some chemotherapy drugs.