15 newer rappers to watch in 2021 as festival season returns
Though the safety of live music festivals still looks questionable (get vaccinated), fests are back, including major rap festivals, which recently returned with Rolling Loud Miami, Hot 97 Summer Jam, and Made In America. Even more big rap-centric fests are on the horizon, including Rolling Loud NYC and California, as well as Day N Vegas and Once Upon A Time In LA, not to mention there are plenty of rappers on the big multi-genre festivals and there are plenty of smaller rap festivals coming up too.
Rap music seems to move especially quickly, and after a year and a half with no live music, you might be looking for some newer, smaller acts to check out at the fests. If so, we've got some suggestions of 15 newer rappers that should be on your radar, all of whom are playing at least one of the upcoming major rap festivals. Even if you won't be attending any of these fests, hopefully the list will at least leave you with some cool new music to check out.
As for the definition of "newer," we went with anyone who had breakthroughs in the past couple years or so, and we tried to keep it to artists who we thought could use a little more attention. (For example, we're very excited about Flo Milli but we included her on our list of the best albums of 2020 and wanted to shine a light on artists we haven't talked about as much.) Some of these rappers are more popular than others, and you might already know all of them, but if not, we recommend changing that.
Read on for the list, unranked, in alphabetical order:
NJ-based Korean-American rapper-singer Audrey Nuna had been honing her sound over a series of singles dating back to 2018 when she stumbled upon a winning formula on her 2020 breakthrough single "damn Right." With a simple yet effective bounce that sounds a little like Valee's "Womp Womp," the addictive song gets stuck in your head on first listen. This year, she put out her debut project a liquid breakfast featuring "damn Right" and nine other songs that prove Audrey is a force to be reckoned with. Other highlights like "Typical" and the Jack Harlow-assisted "Comic Sans" find Audrey rapping in a way that sounds as effortlessly understated as "damn Right," while "Get Luv" and "Baby Blues" are successful half-rapped, half-sung auto-tune experiments, and other songs like "Long Year" and the Saba-featuring "Top Again" find her delivering a soulful croon. It's a brief debut, but it already hints at several directions Audrey could potentially take next.
Michigan has been a hotbed for exciting new rappers lately, and one of the region's brightest voices is Babyface Ray. Ray had been leaving his mark on the local scene for a few years, and this year's Unfuckwithable has gained him more crossover success outside of his hometown than he's had yet. The album has a mix of fellow Michigan rappers (Veeze, Peezy) and attention-grabbing guests from other cities (Moneybagg Yo, Kash Doll, Jack Harlow, EST Gee) and the songs combine Detroit street rap with a melodic side that sounds radio-friendly on a national level. Some moments feel directly aimed at crossover appeal, but Babyface Ray's unique conversational style keeps him from sounding like everyone else on the radio. He's already put out a few new singles since the album, including one where he's up against Big Sean and Hit-Boy and he still comes off as the star.
Boston rapper BIA went viral on TikTok with 2020's "Whole Lotta Money," and the song's success led to a remix with Nicki Minaj earlier this year. The song was originally released on BIA's 2020 8-song project For Certain, which shows off a ton of talent and a variety of different songs. The Lil Jon-assisted "BIA BIA" embraces the crunk revival, the Lil Durk-aided "Same Hands" is a melodic song that's teeming with hit potential, and "Skate" and "Free BIA (1st Day Out)" find tying modern rap to the more aggressive sounds of yesteryear. "Whole Lotta Money" isn't even necessarily the project's best song; the whole thing is rock solid, and it positions BIA as a versatile musician. Since the remix with Nicki, she's kept trying new things like rapping in Spanish on the G Herbo-featuring "Besito" and assisting Sevyn Streeter on the R&B slow jam "Nasty Girl." She seems intent on proving that she's no one-trick pony.
North Carolina rapper Big Mali was winning crowds over as an opener on DaBaby's tour when COVID hit, and she didn't let the pandemic slow her down; the prolific rapper released two projects in 2020 and one in 2021, All In. She remains on a roll, with song after song that delivers tough, fast, in-your-face rhymes over booming bass. Her second 2020 project Gansta Talk had some big name guests (DaBaby, Asian Doll, Rich The Kid), but the newer All In is less guest-heavy and shows how much Big Mali is capable of, even without assists from popular rappers. "I just want the people to see what I can do," she told Kazi Magazine of the new album. "I just want people to know that I’m all in for the count and it’s my turn." It could come off as baseless bragging, but Big Mali walks the walk.
Bizzy Banks hails from the Brooklyn drill scene and he's a collaborator of the late Pop Smoke (they did a song together that ended up on the recent posthumous Pop Smoke album), and he's also one of the most promising Brooklyn drill rappers to leave their mark since Pop passed. A lot of Brooklyn drill newcomers try to sound like Pop Smoke and Sheff G, but Bizzy has a more classically New York sound that pulls influence from rappers like Fabolous and Juelz Santana. His Old New York meets New New York approach is highly effective, as you can hear on his excellent new mixtape Same Energy, which I recently reviewed.
BRS Kash took off in 2020 with the raunchy "Throat Baby," a song that later got a remix with DaBaby and City Girls and ended up on his 2021 debut Kash Only. Like DaBaby (whose frequent collaborator Jasonmade produced two tracks on the album), BRS Kash makes a brash yet melodic mix of early 2000s Southern rap and modern trap, and he's increasingly good at it. He recently followed Kash Only with the new single "Oh No," which is based around the TikTok-viral "oh no" sample from The Shangri-Las' "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)," and the familiar sample isn't the only reason the song sticks. BRS Kash's own bars do the heavy lifting.
Boston-born, New Jersey-raised rapper Coi Leray has been around for a few years, but 2021 has been her year thanks to the release of two big singles, "No More Parties" (and its remix with Lil Durk) and the Pooh Shiesty-featuring "BIG PURR (Prrdd)." The former finds her offering up smooth, melodic, rap-infused R&B, while the latter is a loud, speaker-rattling party-rap song. Coi knows exactly how to pull off both of these entirely different songs, and judging by these and her even more recent singles like "At The Top" and "TWINNEM," it seems like the next Coi Leray album could be a very big deal.
Hailing from Louisville, EST Gee comes from a location that's very central to several thriving rap regions (Atlanta, Michigan, Chicago, Memphis), so it's no surprise that he's a well-matched collaborator of great rappers from all of those places. For proof, look no further than his very good new project Bigger Than Life or Death, which features Lil Baby, 42 Dugg, Pooh Shiesty, Lil Durk, and more. They all effectively bring their flavors to the album, but the true star is EST Gee, who's becoming a master at wrapping gritty street-rap storytelling in an accessible package. Read my review of Bigger Than Life or Death for more.
42 Dugg is probably already a little too big to be considered an "artist to watch," especially after appearing on Lil Baby's 2020 smash hit "We Paid," but it feels like his own career has still yet to boil over. The first inklings of a breakthrough came on 2020's Young & Turnt, Vol. 2, which stirred up buzz for 42 Dugg's ability to write catchy pop-rap songs in a distinctly Detroit way, and he kept the momentum going on this year's Free Dem Boyz. This one has him teaming with more big guests (Future, Lil Durk, Roddy Ricch, as well as the aforementioned EST Gee), and 42 Dugg holds his own next to all of them, both as a rapper and a hooksmith. He has a distinct voice that hooks you every time he starts rapping, and even as he collaborates with more and more hitmakers, he's never sacrificed his own sound.
TikTok continues to have a massive impact on burgeoning rappers' careers, like Georgia's Kali, whose "Do A Bitch" has been everywhere this year. Its success has resulted in multiple remixes of the track, including one with Rico Nasty, and she included the song with six others on her debut project This Why They Mad Now. It's easy to see why Rico Nasty took a liking to Kali, but their styles are pretty different. Compared to Rico's punky sound, Kali has a more muted, bassy delivery, but she sounds just as defiant as Rico does. Kali isn't catering to trends, but she isn't fighting them off either. She manages to sound tough and pop-friendly all at once. Recently, she followed "Do A Bitch" with "MMM MMM," which manages to be fun and brooding all at once, and it suggests that she's got an increasingly bright future.
Tyler, the Creator isn't the only artist bringing awareness back to DJ Drama's legendary Gangsta Grillz mixtape series this year. Rising Milwaukee rapper Lakeyah recently dropped a DJ Drama-hosted tape, My Time, her third full-length in the past 12 months. It features Tee Grizzley, Tyga, and Bankroll Freddie, and they and Drama all play supporting roles -- it's clear that they all know they're in the presence of a rising star. As on 2020's Time's Up and this year's In Due Time, Lakeyah feels like she's testing the waters, putting out relatively brief projects while she hones her promising sound. She's experimented with tough, shit-talking rap songs, somber, inward-looking ones, and pop and R&B, and this mixtape is largely focused on her shit-talking side. She sounds like she's out for blood on these songs; getting in her path would be foolish.
Latto (fka Mulatto) followed up a promising run of singles with her very good debut album Queen of da Souf in 2020, which came right after Cardi B boosted her career by casting her in the "WAP" video. The album was full of sex-positive anthems, but it had a more introspective side too, and she further embraced that side of her on this year's "The Biggest," which was her first single as Latto and discussed why she ditched her previous derogatory moniker. It seemed like it was not just a name change but also the beginning of a new era, and she further confirmed that on followup single "Big Energy," a funky, Tom Tom Club-sampling song that's like nothing else she previously released.
Hailing from North Carolina, Morray has a soul singing meets rapping style not unlike recent breakout Rod Wave, and he's been having his own big breakthrough lately too. His 2020 debut single "Quicksand" quickly took off and caught the attention of J. Cole, who gave him a prominent feature on his new album The Off-Season and tapped him to open his 2021 tour, and judging by Morray's debut album Street Sermons, he's already ready to play to arena-sized crowds. The album features "Quicksand" and 12 other songs, almost all of which offer the same pained, soulful appeal of "Quicksand," and he captured that magic once again on new single "Bad Situations."
Atlanta-via-Lexington, KY rapper Rubi Rose had been on the rise when her 2019 single "Big Mouth" took off, and she made good on the promise of that single with her 2020 8-song debut project For The Streets. The project has assists from Future and PARTYNEXTDOOR on the very catchy "Whole Lotta Liquor," but the album's most significant guest contribution comes on the intro track, which features an interlude where Cardi B talks about why she thinks Rubi Rose is such a good rapper. "Like, you could rap, and rap and rap and rap, but if you don't have that voice, you just don't have it," Cardi says. It's true, and Rubi definitely does have that voice. She also has not slowed down, and already released two great new singles this year ("TWORK" and "Poke") with more singles on the way and plans to drop a new EP by the end of the year. Speaking about her music in a recent interview with Office Magazine, she said, " Just being a woman, I make music that I know girls want to hear. I say stuff that I know girls want to say or might be scared to say. [...] When other girls listen to my music, they always tell me that they feel confident and feel, you know, just lit, like, it's strong, it's powerful. You girls feel it and resonate with it."
Another Brooklyn drill rapper that's really been coming into his own lately is Sleepy Hallow, and Sleepy is at the opposite end of the spectrum of the aforementioned Bizzy Banks. Sleepy has been a close collaborator of Sheff G's for the past few years, but he's been stepping out from Sheff G's shadow. This year's Still Sleep? is one of his best projects yet, and it finds him leaning into a softer R&B side, without losing the essence of Brooklyn drill. His melodic croon is just as effective as his chest-puffed raps, and he's got a great ear for gentle guitar samples (including one of TLC's "No Scrubs") that shake up the typical Brooklyn drill production style. And unlike other artists who have taken drill in pop-friendly directions, Sleepy Hallow never sounds like he's watering down the music for commercial gain.