In 2019, a flurry of young stars exploded onto the scene from both the R&B and hip-hop spheres. Last year, Billboard watched the rapid growth of Megan Thee Stallion, YBN Cordae, Summer Walker, and Roddy Ricch, as they collectively notched Grammy wins and chart-topping singles.
This year, we have a new batch of artists hungrily working to tip the scale in their favor and become superstars sooner than later. After showcasing 11 rookies in 2019, we stretched the list to 15 because of the immense talent out right now.
Take a look below to see who’s on our radar for this year’s Artists to Watch edition.
Lil Keed stepped into the spotlight in 2019 with his studio debut Long Live Mexico. As one of Young Thug’s kin, many expect him to be the next artist with YSL DNA to make the quantum leap to stardom. Even through his album’s hefty 20 tracks, Keed’s range of infectious high-pitched flows seem effortless, and with more refining on his next project, there isn’t any reason he shouldn’t be a Billboard chart staple for the foreseeable future. — MICHAEL SAPONARA
There’s always been a lingering question of if New York could get back to its signature grimey sound following Bobby Shmurda’s incarceration in 2016. But rising rappers like Pop Smoke are doing their part to keep that youthful energy alive. The 20-year-old Brooklyn native came out of nowhere with last April’s gritty, drill-inspired debut single “Welcome to the Party” that was the anthem for every NYC underground party. After getting early co-signs by Nicki Minaj and Skepta, Pop Smoke solidified his rise by hopping on Travis Scott’s Jackboys album, which earned him his first Hot 100 entry with “Gatti.” — BIANCA GRACIE
Last year, Guapdad crushed the old school adage of crawl-before-you-walk when he dashed his way into stardom with his debut album Dior Deposits. An adept rapper who exudes the spirit of your favorite cartoon character, Guapdad imbues fun and warmth into every record he lays his fingers on. Not only can he spray steely bars when necessary (“Dior Deposits”), but he can also bake sugary tunes with big-time artists, as well (“Gucci Pajamas” with Chance the Rapper). After landing a Grammy nomination for his contributions on Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers III last November, there’s no reason why Guap and his railroad-length du-rag can’t earn more nods in the future. — CARL LAMARRE
Rod Wave is from the new class of rappers whose heartache croons sit on ballad beats with lyric snippets ripe for sad boy Instagram captions. In that sense, catch him at the intersection of Drake, YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Kevin Gates, one of his strongest inspirations. The Florida native’s “Heart on Ice” earned TikTok traction, but his debut release, Ghetto Gospel, snatched the industry’s attention. The EP reached No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and held in the top 25 for all but three weeks in its first three months, with the blip only due to Christmas albums’ boosts during the holidays. Look for the EP to tide us over until new music appears and the Wave keeps rising. — TREVOR ANDERSON
Though DJ Drama’s Generation Now label is headlined by superstar artist Lil Uzi Vert, Jack Harlow is quickly bubbling into a formidable star in his own right. In 2019, the Louisville slugger landed a home run of record when he partnered up with Bryson Tiller on “Thru the Night.” Harlow also nimbly pieced together his most cohesive project to date with Confetti, where he flaunts his songwriting prowess on tracks such as “Rain” and ‘Big Chillin.” – C.L.
The new wave of R&B stars continues to flourish with young voices that aren’t afraid to explore their fears, personal insecurities and longing thoughts about love. Dallas’ own Kaash Paige is one of the all-stars of that burgeoning group, thanks to her 2019 EP Parked Car Convos that includes the fan-favorite single “Love Songs.” The singer embodies a kind of vulnerability that is quite relatable, thanks to her laidback vocals and girl-next-door lyrics. — B.G.
Not every 19-year-old rapper has co-signs from the likes of Kendall Jenner and Tyler, The Creator along with Drake casually popping up at their intimate L.A. shows. Between his high-profile backings and a bubbling fanbase, the music industry is fully prepared for a Baby Keem takeover. Just give tracks such as the hypnotic “ORANGE SODA” a listen to see if you’ll be going along for the ride. – M.S.
Peep one of the latest graduates from TikTok academy to Billboard hitmaker. Zervas, a 24-year-old raised in Maryland, exploded in late 2019 with “Roxanne,” which surged to No. 4 on the Hot 100 and has clocked 383 million on-demand streams in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. Now signed to Columbia Records, the 24-year-old has drawn favorable comparisons to Post Malone for his flow, sound and approach, ensuring his debut album could become a top performer in 2020. — T.A.
Commanding attention with a remix of Kodak Black’s “Roll in Peace” — No. 9 on Hot R&B Songs — Layton Greene signed with Quality Control in 2019. Staking her claim as the label’s first R&B artist, the singer-writer earned her first Hot 100 (No. 60) and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (No. 27) entries with “Leave Em Alone” featuring Lil Baby, City Girls and PnB Rock. On debut EP Tell Ya Story, the sweet-voiced Greene unflinchingly chronicles the pain, abuse and love issues she’s already experienced in her scant 21 years, especially on the standouts “Blame on Me” and “I Love You.” – GAIL MITCHELL
A 25-year-old breakout from Chicago’s drill scene, King Von has his eyes set on being the next flower to blossom from the Southside’s pavement. While his melodic raps make him a certain fit in today’s hip-hop landscape, it’s the storytelling prowess he displayed with his vivid “Crazy Story” series that has Lil Durk’s protege on the doorstep of greatness. — M.S.
Along with perfecting the formula for creating hits for himself, Travis Scott also has a knack for discovering fresh talent. The rapper signed fellow Houston native Don Toliver to his Cactus Jack label back in 2018, and his woozy vocals have been soaring ever since. A majority of fans were first introduced to Don with Astroworld highlight “Can’t Say,” and he continued the momentum by stealing the show on 2019’s Jackboys album. — B.G.
Last year, Pop Smoke, Sheff G, and Fivio Foreign galvanized New York with their rowdy party starters. The latter decimated the competition with his volcanic anthems “Big Drip” and “Richer than Ever.” Foreign’s cocky New York demeanor and affinity for major-league hooks have been contagious, reeling in the likes of Tory Lanez and Rich the Kid for features. — C.L.
Co-signed by producer/musician Terrace Martin (Kendrick Lamar) as a guest during the latter’s 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival gig, Arin Ray, 24, has since stepped front and center with the Interscope EP Phases II. Three of the project’s five tracks have already left an imprint on a growing contingent of fans: “Change” featuring Kehlani (4 million YouTube views), “A Seat” (one million on YouTube) and the singer-songwriter’s latest, “The Get Down.” Whether embracing a sensuous ballad or a sassy cha-cha groove, Ray’s silky tenor is a fresh link to the ‘90s R&B that everyone has been clamoring for. — G.M.
As Lizzo learned last year, TikTok’s fortune can resuscitate a dormant song and thrust it into the heights of success. Case in point: Trevor Daniel’s “Falling,” released in Oct. 2018, waited a year before the viral videos sent the song to its No. 31 showing on the Hot 100 and nearly a quarter-billion U.S. on-demand streams. Daniel, the year’s first Billboard Chartbreaker, said, “I don’t see ‘Falling’ as being the biggest song of my career,” and with his blend of pop, R&B and hip-hop influences – a.k.a. the sound of the moment – don’t expect his next singles to linger on the sidelines for a year. — T.A.
Stunna 4 Vegas
In less than 12 months, DaBaby became the hottest rapper in the game, courtesy of his smoldering Hot 100 singles “Suge,” “Bop” and “Baby Sitter.” After notching a No. 1 album with Kirk on the Billboard 200 in September, Baby shifted his focus to his Billion Dollar Baby label and his protégé Stunna 4 Vegas. So far, Vegas has lived up to expectations, carving out a stout project with Rich Youngin’. Not only does he hold his own on the Da Baby and Lil Baby-assisted “Do Dat,” but his penchant for witty punchlines makes him a reliable No. 2 for Baby and Co. –– C.L.