Since releasing her attention-grabbing You Should Be Here mixtape in 2015 -- which later earned a Grammy nomination in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category -- Kehlani's career has progressed in carefully plotted steps. While most artists would follow a tape like Be Here with a steady stream of new projects, Kehlani mostly held back, limiting herself to a few feature appearances (Zayn's "Wrong," Belly's "You," Pusha T's "Retribution") and then releasing a slow drip of singles, including "CRZY," "Distraction" and "Advice." Her "Gangsta" was also on the soundtrack for the action blockbuster Suicide Squad, and benefited from the promotional blitz behind the film, as it peaked at No. 41 on the Hot 100. Kehlani is following her biggest hit to date with her debut album: SweetSexySavage, which arrives in January.
Few listeners were aware of this rapper in May, but by December, his playful and lusty track "Caroline" reached No. 12 on the Hot 100. His easygoing style cloaks plenty of ambition: "I wrote this song with the intentions of hopefully making a modern day 'Billie Jean,'" he told Genius. Once he had the spotlight, Aminé quickly proved he knew what to do with it, turning his performance of the track on The Tonight Show into a potent protest against Donald Trump and raising anticipation for what's to come.
The sounds of Atlanta hip-hop remained dominant in 2016 thanks in part to a steady stream of new ideas and new stars. One of the most promising up-and-comers is YFN Lucci, whose 2016 included guest appearances on releases from 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti, and Meek Mill, along with his first national smash, "Key To The Streets," a collaboration with Migos. A hit often begets more hits, so "Key To The Streets" may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Earlier this month, the rapper took the sound of that release and amped it up, resulting in "Every Day We Lit," a boisterous track featuring singing from rising vocalist PnB Rock.
Leela James is hardly a newcomer -- she released her debut album in 2005 -- but she continues to be overlooked, despite possessing one of the most impressive voices in modern R&B. Her singing is textured and mutable, capable of imperial '70s funk stomp, '80s Quiet Storm precision, and '90s hip-hop soul all within the same song. Her 2014 album, Fall for You, quietly approached something resembling perfection, and some radio programmers took note, because three of the album's singles cracked the top 20 on the Adult R&B chart. James' latest single, "Don't Want You Back," may be her best release to date, easily locating a middle ground between Southern soul and the juddering, pugnacious production more popular today.
Much has been written about Lil Yachty in 2016: He cracked the top 10 with his guest verse on D.R.A.M.'s Grammy-nominated smash "Broccoli," and amassed over 60 million Spotify streams on his own single "1 Night." The rapper to push his sound even further may be Kodie Shane, a Yachty associate and member of his Sailing Team crew. Her recently released Zero Gravity tape is short and sharp, full of effervescent beats, clipped raps, and sudden, on-the-nose slides into melody. Shane is joined by Yachty on "Sad," a lovers duet in the mold of Dreezy and T-Pain's excellent "Close to You," which became a hit this fall. Shane keeps her tone light, but the emotions are cutting: "I just want to be sad for a minute."
Nokia covered a lot of ground on her September mixtape, 1992, rapping with syllable-stacking glee over classic '90s New York beats ("Bart Simpson") at one moment and lacerating, repetitive, of-the-moment club tracks ("Kitana") the next. She's similarly at ease delivering calm couplets celebrating nostalgia -- "1995, I'ma listen to Sublime/ … Gonna listen me Selena, drink a 40 and cry" -- and assertive manifestos that exist urgently in the present: "I step in this b-tch and I do what I want /I don't give a damn, and I don't give a f--k." Wiki, the nimbly mumble-mouthed rapper from Ratking, appears here, as does ace producer, talent scout, and Fool's Gold label-head A-Trak. In a recent interview, Nokia said she's turned down several record deals, and it's working for her: Pandora's data analysis marked her as an artist on the verge of catching fire in November.
Banks has an impressive history as a songwriter -- you'll find his credits on John Legend's Love in the Future and Keyshia Cole's Woman to Woman -- and he's already proven he can pen a hit. "Keep You In Mind," a gliding cut with hints of '80s electro boogie, hit No. 1 on the Adult R&B chart for multiple weeks last year, inhabiting the same space as singles from established veterans like Maxwell and Anthony Hamilton. Banks has yet to release his official debut album but Chris Brown and Bryson Tiller recently hopped on the "Keep You In Mind" remix, suggesting that a pair of commercially successful R&B singers think Banks may be next in line.
Tekno already has a number of hits in Nigeria, and Columbia Records took note, throwing its weight behind this agile, elastic-voiced singer. Tekno's "Pana," which has already accumulated more than 13 million views on YouTube and inspired a minor version of a video challenge, is romantic and light on its feet with little more than a nagging guitar line and squirts of bass, everything pegged to a serpentine forward march. There's clearly a demand in the mainstream for feathery dance cuts like this one: close your eyes and imagine a smart radio programmer cueing this up after Drake's "Too Good."
"Won't you send me your location?," Khalid politely begs on his breakout hit, "Location." "Let's focus on communicating." He paired this yearning for human connection with a beat that cleverly melds a modern low-end with laid-back, daydreaming-in-your-bedroom instrumentation. It's a slow-burn track that's enjoyed gradual growth in popularity, with more than 23 million plays on Spotify to date. The streaming traffic has quietly translated to radio play as Khalid reached No. 20 on the final Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart of 2016. This song will continue to rise, and Khalid's profile will follow suit.
The strain of R&B that can be traced directly back to Drake -- beats that hit hard without sacrificing doleful atmosphere, and smeared, muted vocals that usually sketch romantic dissatisfaction -- is still successful, even though Drake created the formula more than five years ago. Last year, Bryson Tiller had a pair of massive crossover hits using this sound, and PARTYNEXTDOOR had his first bona fide solo success. H.E.R. is a quick study of this sound on H.E.R. Vol. 1. (she offers an explicit Drake homage on by covering "Jungle.")
In the fall, RCA sent out some of her music but refused to reveal her identity, relying on tried-and-true anonymity strategies that gave an early boost to acts as disparate as the Weeknd and the electronic music producer Zhu. A high-powered group of veterans quickly announced their public support for H.E.R. on social media, including Alicia Keys and Bryson Tiller. (In a nice bit of corporate synergy, they both also record for RCA.) The best response came from Wyclef Jean, who understandably wondered, "Who is this insane voice?"