Okayplayer’s breakout artists of 2021 include mindful and measured rappers, songwriters with heavy pens and twisted senses of melody, and producers who elevated beatmaking videos to essential viewing.
Safe to say, 2020 was a wild ride for all of us. Even those who thought themselves to be somehow insolated from the unending tentacles of a pandemic wound up getting touched in some way. Bunkered in their respective corners of the internet like the rest of us, musicians of all tiers grappled with the need to explore new ways of connecting with their fans and one another as once-reliable stages, watering holes, sources of supplementary incomes, and everything in between shuddered. In many cases, for good.
No one adapted in the same way. Some used the newfound surplus of downtime (on and offline) to tidy up a vaulted single or a project stashed for too long. Some used it to situate themselves, despite wholly justified skepticism of the platforms, in a still-fledgling Livestream landscape. Some disappeared entirely and focused solely on patching residual gaps in their processes. Some did it all. Some did none of it. But damn-near everyone was more or less stuck in whatever broad or rigid range of motion(s) their circumstance could afford them.
However, credit’s certainly due to those artists who not only took on this strange new world with us but also defined the sounds of a year that escapes definition, leaving the best bit of themselves in it. The breakout artists of 2021 include mindful and measured rappers, songwriters with heavy pens and twisted senses of melody, and producers who elevated beatmaking videos to essential viewing with viral potential.
Scroll on for Okayplayer’s list of breakout artists to watch for in 2021.
Cleo Reed entered 2020 with just a handful of features and singles to her name. But she walked out of it with a pair of piercing new cuts, each displaying uncommon penmanship and a twisted sense of melody that’ll grab and hold ears until she unveils the next chapter.
With one of last year’s most polished R&B albums under her belt, Demae is making waves on both sides of the pond. On her dreamy and sobering 2020 debut, Life Works Out… Usually, the UK-based singer deals a potent blend of off-kilter post-neo-soul spaciousness and playful melodics that will make her a fixture in your daily rotations for years to come.
At just six tracks deep, Ivy Sole‘s lone 2020 entry, SOUTHPAW, is a dynamic showcase of the Philly-based artist’s powers. Slipping between hulking bars and infectious hooks, Sole demonstrates her versatility over an array of neck-aching productions, ruminating on loss, lust, and struggle, on an abbreviated set that pulls no punches.
Each track on MIA GLADSTONE‘s shifty and iridescent 2020 EP sits somewhere between hi-fidelity bedroom pop and a freshly unearthed Deee-Lite outtake. Five songs and many moods tall, CYCLE/S extends the singer’s recent run with a collection of airy melodies, uplifting affirmations, and deceptively sophisticated songwriting chops that will carry well into whatever follows the COVID-19 saga.
Over the last few years, Dreamcastmoe has been an unsung force of sedative melodies and unshakeable hooks. The DC-based singer and producer hit a new high on his Lamont EP, a short but firm four-track outing with tripped-out hometown anthems and lucidly lux house-laced gems. Lamont covers a good grip of sonic topography and glimpses a promising trajectory all at once.
One of Stones Throw’s more recent and R&B-rooted recruits, Peyton has been taking her time to unveil a proper full-length with the famed LA indie. But there’s already ample evidence of a stellar studio outing on the way. Exhibit A: her smoldering and slightly-trilled Steve Lacy collaboration, “Verbs.” Exhibit B: the glistening and infectious new song “Swag,” which is arguably one of the most replayable loosies released in 2020.
Stepping into 2020, The Kount was a trusted, low-key supplier of both raw and refined drum sounds to some of your favorite producer’s favorite producers. But thanks to a string of entrancing beatmaking videos that have threaded the whole of pandemic-era interneting, he capped the year at his most visible point yet, flipping his home studio experiments into layered, viral, and Madlib-approved, heat.
Another producer who disrupted the months-long doom scroll of COVID-19 with full-melt morsels of his assembly process, Kaelin Ellis has asserted himself as one of rap internet’s premier beatmakers. And he’s already gaining traction amongst hip-hop heavyweights, producing the entirety of Lupe Fiasco’s recent HOUSE EP. And you can expect the credits to pile up in 2021.
Barely out of his teens, MIKE has been a reliable, yet still-evolving, presence in New York’s recent rap renaissance. With a heavy pen and a voice that booms not unlike DOOM, the Bronx MC has done some therapy-level mining of sorrow, strife, and trauma, across five acclaimed projects. In 2020 he dug even deeper on Weight of The World, a touching and profoundly inspired tribute to his late mother that demonstrates growth and reckoning almost in real-time.
By any set of metrics, Griselda’s 2020 was one for the books. But if you were solely focusing on the staggering collective output of Westside Gunn, Conway The Machine, and Benny The Butcher, you might’ve missed one of the Buffalo crew’s best drops this year. In mid-September, Armani Caesar traded in the glossy backdrops of former releases for dusty and gnarled soul loops on THE LIZ, her debut album as the First Lady of Griselda. And it’s nothing short of polished, regal, and right on time.
Fousheé might not have expected 2020 to be the year that launched her profile to another level of visibility, but she’s riding the TikTok-fueled wave into the next chapter of her career. After Sleepy Hollow’s “Deep End Freestyle” blew up on the social platform, the singer teased the next phase with “single af,” an empowering ode to self-reliance that gained new layers of resonance amidst the lockdown and set the stage for an even bigger 2021.
Regardless of whether you consider it a collection or a full-length project, it’s hard to hear Fana Hues‘ 2020 debut, Hues, as anything short of an omen for R&B at large. Hues is a tender and sobering 10-track introduction to the Pasadena-based singer, drawing on the strength of her family and a voice-snatching bout with scarlet fever for source material. The result is a potent yet far from flashy sequence loaded with heavy swings, warm keys, rich harmonies, and a preternatural urgency that’s gripping from cover-to-cover.
Namir Blade lived a number of musical lives before settling into his current build. But on his breakout project Aphelion’s Traveling Circus, it’s clear Blade is fully formed, jumping another lightyear or two into a dazzling do-it-all mode. Across the heady 16-track concept album, the Nashville musician and vocalist proves he’s a threat from any angle, fitting minimalistic self-produced suites with the kind of moody R&B hooks, galaxy brain bars, and spacious melodies that prove he’s now in total control of his abilities.
Released on the backend of a stolen summer via Earl Sweatshirt’s Tan Cressida imprint (and as the label’s first non-Earl drop) Black Noi$e‘s OBLIVION celebrates the sweat-soaked and lawless afterglow of Detroit’s musical legacy with an abrasive, serrated, and properly twisted major label debut. A volatile victory by committee, the 13-track assault is teeming with contributions from fellow boundary-pushers, including Pink Siifu, Liv.e, Danny Brown, Bbymutha, MIKE, and the newly-minted label chief himself. And like any producer worth their weight, the Motor City native builds perfectly contained little worlds for each of his guests, amplifying their respective powers with backdrops brimming with jagged glitches and tactful distortions.
Seven stellar projects and running, AKAI SOLO has yet to misstep. In 2020 alone, the NYC-based artist doubled his resume length with the coldly cosmic BSTFRND collaboration, Like Hajime, his towering and tripped-out opus, Ride Alone, Fly Together, and the gorgeously grainy Eleventh Wind tape. Now squarely centered in the city’s revived underground, you can expect the streak to last for years to come, anchoring the incoming vanguard of New York rap with meditative bars and an arsenal of hard-hitting one-liners.
Over the course of 2020, tobi lou followed the TikTokification of his 2018 single, “Buff Baby,” by successfully orchestrating a year-long album campaign, but without ever actually releasing the album. Roughly once a month, the Nigerian-American artist would drop a loose track on DSPs with an immersive visual accompaniment, each a bit more refined than the last, glimpsing clear marquee potential. And while he seems poised to finally relinquish a full-length sequel to 2019’s expansive, Live On Ice, next year, it’s as good a time as any to get acquainted with one of R&B’s most prolific pens.
John Carroll Kirby
With recent credits that span studio sessions for Frank Ocean, Solange, Shabazz Palaces, and a number of genre-agnostic outfits at all tiers of the industry, it’s very likely that you’ve already come across some semblance of John Carroll Kirby‘s work. But on My Garden, the producer sits calmly at the forefront of a collection of compositions that lean as much on soul-jazz vamps as sprawled-out beds of warmly dissolving synth pads, landing in a space that’s as ambient and transfixing as anything you’ve heard last year.
Stove God Cooks
Sometimes it takes more than co-signs from high-profile rappers to step into your own lane as an artist. And nobody understands that better than Stove God Cooks. For the 27-year-old Syracuse rapper, a chance to break free from the purgatory-ish haze of developing in a label system didn’t arrive until he linked with someone who’d built a storied career outside of it. Namely, Roc Marciano, the venerable and inventive indie powerhouse who helped Cooks (formerly Aaron Cook$) craft one of the year’s most daggering and shamelessly gritty vice rap expositions in Reasonable Drought.
After roughly a decade of laboring in the shadows of some prestigious industry circles, Alycia Bella has finally arrived. In 2020, the 31-year-old singer (who previously worked with Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, Childish Gambino, and Justin Timberlake) laid the groundwork for a massive moment with four dreamy standalone singles. Welding R&B of all fidelities, shades, and tempos, Bella seems more than ready for the big reveal. It’s just a matter of time at this point.
Marcel Allen might not be at the top of your dial just yet, but the Long Island artist has been gradually building momentum for the better part of the last two years. And if the pair of sparse and smokey singles released in 2020 are an appropriate gauge, Allen’s developing a formidable command of notched wordplay and air-tight hooks that will hold a good deal of weight in the years to come.
In just ten short months, BKTHERULA flipped a riotous introduction into a major label deal. On her debut mixtape, Love Santana, the 18-year-old Atlanta artist shifts from steel-toed rapper to carefree hook-crafter with ease, often occupying both roles in the same song. Shored up by the hit single, “Tweakin’ Together,” the project, released in early January, showcased a new and vital energy spilling out from rap’s de facto modernday mecca. Fast forward to October and BK’s already onto the next one, stepping into Warner with Nirvana, a project that retains plenty of the guiltlessly moshable anthems that caught the eye of the label system, but also bears the off-setting fragility and in-looking that only comes with maturation. And if she’s progressing that quickly in her development as a writer, mainstream rap has every right to be on its heels.
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