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10 new-ish rappers who are defining 2019

Megan Thee Stallion DaBaby Melii

Over four decades into hip hop’s existence, the genre is still in a constant state of evolution. The face of rap is changing not just every year but sometimes every week, and with streaming platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube leveling the playing field between legends and 19-year-old kids without record deals, there are promising new voices emerging constantly. There’s more great new music out there right now than any one person can consume on their own, and for just a small snapshot of the new faces that are on their way to dominating rap music (or already doing so), we’ve put together this list of 10 new-ish rappers who are defining 2019.

Most of these rappers already started generating buzz before 2019, but they are all on the rise and it feels like this is the year that the impact they’ve been leaving is set in stone. Some of these artists challenge the traditional definition of rap, while others honor the time-tested sounds of the genre as it was defined during the “golden age.” A couple are already very popular, but most these artists’ careers are still taking off and will presumably be a lot bigger this time next year.

Again, this list is just a small snapshot, but we think it’s a pretty good snapshot of how rich and diverse the current world of rap continues to be. Read on for the list, in no particular order…

Megan Thee Stallion

MEGAN THEE STALLION

Megan Thee Stallion has been crafting her career for over a year now, first with 2017’s Make It Hot EP and then with 2018’s Tina Snow full-length, but it wasn’t until the sleeper success of Tina Snow‘s “Big Ole Freak” that Megan became inescapable. The song got the twerk-filled video treatment earlier this year, and even more people have been drawn to the force that is Megan Thee Stallion since the video came out (like Solange, and Lizzo who we spotted front-row when we saw Megan Thee Stallion at the She Shreds SXSW showcase this year). The Houston native grew up on Southern rappers like Pimp C and Three 6 Mafia (“all the raunchy music,” she adds), and she’s gotten compared to Pimp C a lot (and Tina Snow is named after him), but she re-imagines that music from a woman’s perspective and it’s a big deal to see a woman owning her sexuality like this in such a traditionally male-dominated realm. (It’s worth noting that, in the “Big Ole Freak” video, there’s not a man in sight.) “Big Ole Freak” deserves all the hype it’s getting — Megan fills the song with cutthroat bars and the hook is one of the catchiest in recent memory — and Megan’s already got more up her sleeve. She just dropped another great new single, “Sex Talk,” and she’s gearing up to release a new project called Fever this year. Our anticipation for it is high.

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DaBaby

DABABY

North Carolina rapper DaBaby (who used to go by Baby Jesus) has a handful of mixtapes dating back to 2015, but his moment officially came earlier this year with his single “Walker Texas Ranger” and its over-the-top video. In the video, DaBaby is dressed similarly to the Chuck Norris character the song is named after, and it plays out like an intentionally-poorly-acted B movie. It’s a fun and funny clip, but “Walker Texas Ranger” is a banger even without the video. It’s got the kind of addictive melodic rap hook that brings you back to when Southern rappers like T.I. ruled the radio, but you don’t need to be nostalgic for the mid 2000s to be won over by “Walker Texas Ranger” — it feels entirely in the now. DaBaby quickly followed “Walker Texas Ranger” with his Interscope debut, Baby on Baby, and throughout its 13 songs, DaBaby proves he can easily blend his throwback Southern rap side with modern-day trap, and the album seamlessly works in features from modern radio-friendly guys like Offset, Rich Homie Quan, and Rich the Kid. And as much as he’s got pop appeal, he can also rap his ass off when he wants to. He shows off a technical side a few times on the album, and he really embraced that side of him a few weeks after releasing the album with the “Baby On Baby Out Now Freestyle,” He raps a mile a minute and almost never stops to take a breath, and this non-album freestyle has racked up as many views as some of his proper songs (it currently has over two million). DaBaby can’t be stopped, and it feels like this is only the beginning. (He was just cleared of murder charges against him in a case that he claimed self-defense in.)

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Melii

MELII

In late 2017, Harlem’s Melii remixed Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and it went viral, landing her a deal with Interscope and leading to a string of singles like “Icey” (which got co-signed by Rihanna) and “Sh*t Talk,” as well as Spanish-language singles like “Como Si Na” and “La Envidia Mata.” (She’s of Dominican descent, and she’s talked about how her upbringing and the Dominican music her mother used to play impacted her, along with her hip hop influences.) As evidenced by her early singles, she can belt it like an R&B powerhouse and she can rap as hard as the hardest rappers out there. The singles are great, but when it was time for Melii’s debut album phAses, she didn’t just package her previously-released fan faves with some filler. It’s a whole new batch of songs, and a rock-solid batch at that. Her A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie collab “HML” rivals any of the poppiest moments of her early singles, and a song like album closer “Feel Me” shows off an intricate flow and a sense of lyricism that goes deeper than her pop side.

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YBN Cordae

YBN CORDAE

Maryland rapper YBN Cordae came up as part of the YBN collective, whose YBN: The Mixtape was one of our favorite rap albums of 2018, and while YBN Nahmir was the first YBN member to have a true solo breakout, YBN Cordae is looking like he’s next. The YBN collective is about as generation Z as it gets — the members all met while playing Grand Theft Auto with each other over the internet — but Cordae is a classicist. As heard on his two 2019 solo singles, “Locationships” and “Have Mercy,” he raps the way people rapped the year he was born (which is 1997), and he does it in such a smooth way that he should have no trouble winning over old heads and new kids alike. And in fact, as he discusses on his J Cole response “Old N*ggas,” bridging the generational gap is exactly what he aims to do. If his eventual solo album is at the level of “Locationships” and “Have Mercy,” I think he’ll have no trouble doing just that.

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Blueface

BLUEFACE

Blueface’s rise was quickly met with controversy because a slew of rap fans considered his unique flow to be off-beat to the point where it was safe to say he simply had no talent as a rapper. But if your music is making people that mad, winning over a whole bunch of other people, and sounding unique in the process, you’re probably doing something right, and Blueface is definitely doing something right. If that wasn’t clear the day he dropped his 2018 album Famous Cryp, it became clear by the time its song “Thotiana” became one of the biggest hits of 2019. It’s one of those times where an up-and-coming rapper just crafts one of the most undeniable hooks imaginable — like an “I Don’t Like” or a “Trap Queen” — and the song quickly caught on with some established rappers who jumped at the opportunity to remix the song and add their own verses: first YG, then Cardi B. Any song with reigning rap queen Cardi B is a must-hear, so naturally that version has surpassed the original, but as with, say Kanye’s guest-filled “I Don’t Like” remix, it’s the original hook that powers the song, no matter how great Cardi’s verse is.

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Koffee

KOFFEE

Jamaican artist Koffee is more reggae/dancehall than hip hop, but she cites rappers like Smino and Giggs as influences and she can spit. Arguably even more so than new-wave reggae staples like Chronixx and Protoje (both of whom have co-signed Koffee), she breaks from reggae’s tradition and embraces the sounds of modern hip hop and electronic music. (Walshy Fire of Major Lazer produced her biggest single, “Toast.”) After an impressive run of singles, she released her debut EP Rapture on Columbia last month. It collects singles “Toast,” “Throne,” and “Raggamuffin,” and adds in her new single “Rapture” and the new song “Blazin” (ft. Jane Macgizmo). If you wanna hear her spit, skip straight to “Raggamuffin,” while “Toast” and “Rapture” make it clear that she has hit potential and staying power. “Throne” is the closest she gets to traditional reggae, and Jane Macgizmo’s hook on “Blazin” helps Koffee dip her toes in modern R&B. It’s one of the most promising debut EPs of the year in any genre, and a perfect introduction to this talented new artist.

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Maxo In My Pennys

MAXO

LA rapper Maxo (not to be confused with Maxo Kream) released the SMILE EP in 2018, but it wasn’t until he signed to Def Jam and put out the 2019 singles “In My Penny’s” and “Time” that it became clear he was a force to be reckoned with. Those songs and eight others make up his new Lil Big Man EP, which proves Maxo has more where “In My Penny’s” and “Time” came from. Maxo is a true student of the classics (EP closer “Quiktoldme” is an ode to West Coast rap legend DJ Quik), and he has a skilled delivery and introspective lyricism that should win over the greats of the past. And as much as he pays homage to ’90s rap, his atmospheric jazz/soul production sounds modern and his lyrical concerns are too personal to call him an impressionist. His new EP reminds me most of albums like Joey Bada$$’ All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, Saba’s Care for Me, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. Those albums were influenced by the greats of the ’90s too, but they made a genuine impact in today’s world; Lil Big Man is on track to do the same.

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Bad Bunny

BAD BUNNY

Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny had been tearing up the Latin charts and getting nominated for Latin Grammys since 2017, and by the time he teamed up with Cardi B for “I Like It,” he became a force amongst English-language music as well. He followed “I Like It” with his own Drake-featuring single “Mia,” which was and continues to be a huge hit in both the Spanish-language and English-language worlds (without containing a word of English), and just at the tail-end of 2018 he put out his debut album X 100PRE. He tacked on “Mia” and another of his big 2018 hits, “Estamos Bien,” as the last two songs, but otherwise X 100PRE saw Bad Bunny branching out from his reign as a phenomenal singles artist and becoming a phenomenal album artist. The multi-genre album spans trap to R&B to even pop punk (“Tenemos Que Hablar” was influenced by blink-182), and it bounces between lighthearted material and heavier topics like domestic violence (on “Solo De Mi”). The album represents a huge jump for Bad Bunny, and with an arena tour underway as we speak (and a big-font slot at Coachella coming up), 2019 is shaping up to be his biggest year yet.

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Queen Key

QUEEN KEY

Queen Key broke out last year with a standout verse on Joey Purp’s QUARTERTHING, a tour with G Herbo, and her very good debut album Eat My Pussy, its title an affront to the toxic male stereotypes that often dominate rap music (“This dude replied like, ‘I’ma name a project, Suck My Dick.’ That made me go, ‘You know what? That’s exactly why I’m naming my project Eat My Pussy.’ This the problem right here. The simple fact that a dude would even feel like he needs to name his project Suck My Dick. Only because mine is Eat My Pussy,” she told Pitchfork.) As good as Eat My Pussy was, though, the singles from its upcoming sequel Eat My Pussy Again (due April 26 via Machine Entertainment Group, pushed back from March 22) suggest that Queen Key is about to release her best project yet. Lead single Ratchett” is the most immediate song she’s released yet. Its “Make these hoes get ratchett” hook feels built to light up a club, and Key earns the right to dish out all the braggadocio verses she dishes out. It may not be long before “Bitch I’m Queen Key, so you know this shit a classic” is self-evident. Followup single “Can’t Take It” is less of a banger, but just as satisfying in a different way. Key fires off slick bars over lush, head-nodding production, sounding like something Jay-Z would’ve done in the early 2000s. It’s just as confident as “Ratchett” but a bit more melancholic, and it’s a sign that Queen Key is far from a one-trick pony.

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Lil Nas X

LIL NAS X

Lil Nas X is the artist on this list whose longevity seems the most unpredictable, but even if his 21-million-views-and-counting hit “Old Town Road (I Got The Horses In The Back)” is a flash in the pan, this song — and the story surrounding it — will have undoubtedly defined 2019. The Atlanta rapper released the ten-song Nasarati EP last year and it’s a perfectly fine collection of modern trap songs, but the minute and 50 seconds that make up the country-rap song “Old Town Road” is the reason no one can stop talking about him. Over a trap beat and a banjo line (sampled from Nine Inch Nails’ “34 Ghosts IV”), Lil Nas X sings in a Southern twang about cowboy life, and he released the song with a visualizer made up of flips from wild wild west video game Red Dead Redemption 2. The song quickly became a basis for a meme on the Vine-like app TikTok, where people film themselves listening to the song, and as soon as the beat drops, the shot changes and they’re dancing and decked out in cowboy gear. (If you’d rather just see it for yourself, here’s a compilation video.) It’s all happening along with the rise of the Yeehaw Agenda, but unlike the aforementioned DaBaby who just dresses like a cowboy, “Old Town Road” actually cracked Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart (as well as the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and the Hot 100). But then, Billboard controversially removed the song, issuing a statement to Rolling Stone saying that the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” This led to widespread accusations that Billboard made the choice because of Lil Nas X’s race, not because of the sound of his music. White country singers (like Florida Georgia Line, who co-signed Lil Nas X) have incorporated rapping into their songs without getting removed from the country chart, and as we speak, Post Malone — a white artist who collaborated with Aerosmith and Red Hot Chili Peppers — currently occupies the top two slots on Billboard‘s Hot Rap Songs chart with songs that mostly feature him singing. It’s not hard to see why it seems very much like a race issue. Lil Nas X himself avoided the topic when TIME asked him about it, but he did feel strongly that it belonged on the country chart. “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both,” he said. The narrative surrounding “Old Town Road” is perhaps even bigger than “Old Town Road” itself, but at the end of the day, this all started because it’s such a likable song. You might be cynical that a meme turned it into a hit, but memes also turned “Black Beatles,” “Bad and Boujee,” and “In My Feelings” into hits too. Those songs outlasted their memes because they were good, and “Old Town Road” is good too. It’ll be interesting to see if lightning will strike twice for Lil Nas X, but even if it doesn’t, he’s done a lot of good already. He helped start a much-needed conversation about how we perceive race and music in 2019, and he created a catchy fucking song in the process.

UPDATE (4/5): Now there’s a remix of the song featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. Is it country now??

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Listen to a couple songs by each artist in the Spotify playlist below:

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