Last year, Billboard watched a bevy of rookies take a leap forward and graduate into stardom.
Rod Wave, Jack Harlow, and Don Toliver’s chart dominance helped solidify their standing in the hip-hop game while R&B singer Kaash Paige exuded promise on her sizzling debut. Along with standout campaigns in 2020, the hip-hop community mourned the losses of Brooklyn’s Pop Smoke and Chicago’s King Von, as both stars were victims of gun violence.
With 2021 currently in session, a new breed of neophytes looks to cause a stir. After showcasing our fierce 15 last year, Billboard runs the table back and presents this year’s Hip-Hop/R&B Artists to watch Class of 2021. Check out our list below.
In 2020, Blxst rocketed to success when fans unwrapped his eight-track project No Love Lost. The Cali polymath doesn’t shy away from messy topics, working through heartbreak and relationship woes with elastic ease. Fortunately, Blxst doesn’t allow his losses to define him, as he proves to be a slithery Casanova on “Wrong or Right,” “Overrated” and “Be Alone.” His skill for hitmaking shines on the project’s deluxe edition, as he recruits West Coast all-stars Dom Kennedy (“Got It All”) and Ty Dolla $ign and Tyga (“Chosen”) for his daily escapades. — CARL LAMARRE
If you didn’t know Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty before he locked in with Lil Durk on “Back in Blood,” you certainly do now: The King Von-tributing video for the chillingly menacing team-up exploded on YouTube, and the song is now creeping its way up the Billboard Hot 100. But that’s just one of many captivating one-off records the Gucci Mane protégé has dropped since signing to Guwop’s 1017 Records — most recently with the bouncy “Guard Up” — and he promises that his upcoming Shiesty Season mixtape is gonna be the “best project coming out this year.” — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Lil Baby’s My Turn was one of the biggest hip-hop releases of 2020, and featured 42 Dugg, the Detroit rapper with a sprightly flow and knack for riding beats, on a pair of tracks; one of those, “We Paid,” became a top 10 hit on the Hot 100 and served as a mainstream breakthrough. After his mixtape Young & Turnt 2 demonstrated his leading-man appeal last year, 42 Dugg is looking ahead to a new project that will be jointly released through Yo Gotti’s CMG and Lil Baby’s 4PF. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
Raiche is another gifted member of the aptly titled Island Prolific roster, co-founded by songwriter-producer Prince Charlez (Rihanna, Beyoncé, Usher). Gaining favorable notice in 2018 for her smoky, robust vocals on “Money Pies,” Raiche upped the soulful quotient in 2019 with “Complicated,” followed by her EP Drive, issued via GDE/Island Prolific/Atlantic. The title track was featured in Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Raiche’s hard work and promise are paying off: The singer-songwriter currently ranks at No. 8 on the Adult R&B airplay chart with relationship slow-burner “Pick a Side,” from her upcoming debut album. — GAIL MITCHELL
With the drill scene still commanding New York’s attention, Staten Island’s prized gem CJ barreled his way into the hip-hop mainstream with his explosive hit “Whoopty.” Moving into the top 20 on the Hot 100 this week, CJ’s single not only earned him a partnership with Warner Records earlier this month, but a fistful of co-signs from previous New York greats Cardi B, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, and more. With a forthcoming EP executive produced by French Montana en route, expect CJ to bring a healthy balance of drill and melody. — C.L.
North Carolina MC Morray made waves in 2020 with his breakout single “Quicksand,” a sung-rapped autobiographical anthem with a soulful chorus reminiscent of peak Kevin Gates. He’s earned valuable co-signs from arguably the two biggest rappers in his home state’s history, J. Cole and DaBaby — and now in 2021, he looks to reach similar heights to that superstar pair, with a debut album on the way. “I want to be that light in the ghetto,” he told Billboard earlier this month. “I wanna be the person that makes you smile and shows you the hood ain’t all bad.” — A.U.
Erica Banks started owning 2021 when “Buss It,” which samples Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” blessed TikTok with its first dance challenge of the new year. The social media craze eventually blessed the 22-year-old Dallas, Texas rapper with her career-first Hot 100 hit, with the song climbing to No. 83 on the chart this week. Although she’s dodged comparisons to Megan Thee Stallion — who’s from the same home state and was also signed to 1501 Certified Entertainment — Banks’ quick-witted, versatile flow and bravado promises more turn-up anthems for the girls to twerk to. — HERAN MAMO
Stove God Cooks
Formerly known as Aaron Cooks within hip-hop, the Syracuse native changed his name and came out swinging with his proper debut album, Reasonable Drought, last March. Backed by Busta Rhymes’ The Conglomerate label — and with the veteran Roc Marciano handling the entire project’s production — Cooks chefs up one heady track after the next, bringing simple yet catchy hooks and an effortless swagger to the coke rap game. Whether he’s talking about his daughter that wears “chinchillas to the petting zoo” on “Crosses” or flexing about the payoffs of his work ethic on album standout “Cocaine Cologne,” every emphatically delivered bar is worth playing back again. Here’s to hoping the follow-up effort will be just as strong. — JOSH GLICKSMAN
R&B star Summer Walker is paying it forward. She signed NO1-NOAH last December as the first artist on her Interscope-distributed Ghetto Earth Records. A songwriter-producer as well, NO1-NOAH previously appeared on Walker’s 2020 Life on Earth EP: guesting on “SWV” and “White Tee.” But astute music fans know the emerging emo-crooner from his 2018 indie EP Feeling in Color, with highlights such as “Stuck on Stupid” (nearly 4 million SoundCloud plays). NO1-NOAH showcases his ethereal vocals and intrepid lyricism in the new video for his retribution-seeking Ghetto Earth debut, “Ridin For My Love.” — G.M.
Yung Bleu’s manifestations are as strong as his star power, after he spoke a Drake collaboration into existence and signed to Boosie’s Badazz Music Syndicate. He already has three RIAA-certified singles — “Underappreciated,” “Ice on My Baby” and “Miss It” — while “You’re Mines Still” earnes Bleu a new peak of No. 32 this week on the Hot 100. The 26-year-old Mobile, Alabama rapper will continue manifesting his own superstar status with his baritone voice and melodious trap ballads. — H.M.
As women steadfastly erase the status quo, Vedo’s “You Got It” refreshingly amplifies their goal. “Unlock potential that you didn’t know you had in you,” Vedo assures with his suave tenor. Certified gold by the RIAA, the lead single off his 2020 album For You (New Wav Music Group/Island Prolific/EMPIRE) peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs, cracked the Hot 100, logged 74 million Spotify streams and sparked remixes with Ty Dolla $ign, Money Man and Young Dolph. Vedo, who’s written for Justin Bieber, Usher and Ella Mai, was also a season four contestant on The Voice. — G.M.
Though Atlantic Records is home to pop superstars Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, their newest signee Symba is eager to pounce on the rap game. Last year, he joined forces with 2 Chainz on his lead single “Big Homie” and flashed signs of brilliance. His tenacity, combined with his steely wordplay, makes him an intriguing prospect on Atlantic’s loaded roster. Despite his precocious lyricism, candor serves as his best attribute, proven on his standout track “Reality Is.” — C.L.
If content is king, Toosii is coming for the crown. The Syracuse-born rapper has put out new music at a torrential pace since last year, including two new albums (one of which later received a deluxe treatment with seven additional songs), and an EP in the final days of 2020 just for good measure. With a number of impressive collaborations under his belt already (South Coast Music Group labelmate DaBaby, Summer Walker, Lil Durk), a hypnotic R&B-infused groove and a deal with Capitol Records inked in late September, Toosii’s buzz is growing by the day. — J.G.
Sultry-voiced Ayanis (pronounced Aye-yaun-is) took dismissing scrubs to the next level in 2020 with “Lil Boi (Big Talk),” her fun breakthrough featuring Queen Naija (nearly 3 million YouTube views). Rapper Jack Harlow, featured on the remix, is among the notables — Wiz Khalifa, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Mulatto, Queen Naija and Vedo — that Ayanis recruited for her second EP YANI via Island Prolific/Atlantic Records late last year. Intertwining her Southern, gospel roots with a fresh spin on ‘90s R&B, Ayanis confidently traverses the gamut of emotions from sweet and serious to sensual and seductive, as on latest single “Ecstasy.” — G.M.
The Latin hip-hop scene is oozing with potential, especially in New York. While CJ is Staten Island’s spirited drill sergeant, J.I. is Brooklyn’s melodic wunderkind, eager to share his icy tales on love and street warfare. After blazing through the Tri-State area with “Need Me” — his throwback to Mya’s 2000 anthem “Best of Me” — he strengthened his alliance inside of the city of Gotham by collaborating with A Boogie (“R&B S–t”) and Lil Tjay (“Hood Scars 2”). — C.L.
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