Although Kendrick Lamar is hardly new to the rap game, this was his year, without question. It started with the merging of his home label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) with Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records in March. He quickly became a household name after coming under the mentorship of Dr. Dre and releasing several huge singles.
His chart-topping debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was dubbed a potential classic before it was even released. Whether or not it’s held up to that title, it’s sold nearly half a million copies since its release on October 22nd. It’s peaked at #1 on Billboard’s Top Rap Albums and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums lists, and at #2 on their general Top 200 list.
Lamar has appeared on more than 30 features this year, with artists ranging from Meek Mill to Mac Miller, and has graced the cover of multiple magazines. On the cover of the latest issue of The Source, he’s pictured rocking a crown. It’s a fitting image. Kendrick was king this year, plain and simple.
Frank Ocean, the eccentric, low-key crooner of the OddFuture crew, is without a doubt one of the biggest breakthrough success stories of the year. Buzz from his 2011 Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape lingered until singles started appearing for his debut channel ORANGE album, which peaked at #1 on Billboard's Top Rap/R&B Albums list and #2 on the general Top 200 list, selling nearly 400, 000 copies to date.
Adding to his quickly progressing career is the fact that he’s chosen to make it happen on his own, writing and producing the majority of his music himself. After being featured on Kanye West and Jay Z’s “Watch theThrone” album in 2011, West offered to collaborate on his debut LP, but Ocean declined. The integrity it took to make this decision is noteworthy, given the guaranteed recognition and exposure that comes while working under West’s wing.
The buzz and admiration surrounding this honest young musician is undeniable. Ocean is a refreshing voice in R&B, and it’s unlikely he’ll be dropping out of sight any time soon.
Although A$AP Rocky’s LiveLoveA$AP mixtape dropped in October of 2011, it’s effects were felt well throughout 2012. Combined with the crossover hype surrounding him in the fashion world, an extensive North American tour and the massive singles "Goldie" and "Fuckin’ Problem," he truly broke through in 2012. Also, his upcoming “LongLiveA$AP” album may be the mostanticipated hip-hop project this year.
He’s been featured in dozens of publications including GQ and Vogue, and is backed by leading contemporary designers. He’s been featured ontracks with Usher, Big Boi, T.I., Swizz Beatz and Rihanna. Daft Punk are fans of his music.
Rocky is supremely confidant, open-minded and shows no signs of slowing down. 2013 is shaping up to be an even bigger year for him.
The rapper formerly known as Tity Boi has been in the game for nearly fifteen years, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he truly shone through. 2 Chainz reinvented himself, going from a relatively unknown member of Ludacris’ Disturbing The Peace label (half of the Playaz Circle duo with DollaBoy) to one of the most buzzed about names in the mainstream after a co-sign from Kanye West. He served as the temporary court jester of the G.O.O.D Music clique, something they definitely needed. Appearing on several “Cruel Summer” tracks, his eccentric, off-kilter flow and quirky, non sequitur rhyme schemes made him an anomaly in the roster.
But like Frank Ocean, he decided to make his way independently of West, and has since become one of the most sought-after and prolific feature artists this year, appearing on nearly 70 tracks including Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap” and Currensy’s “Capitol.” His debut album, Based on a T.R.U Story, lead by the Drake-assisted lead single “No Lie,” has sold more than 400, 000 copies since its August 14th release, and is nominated for Best Rap Album at the 55th Grammy Awards.
Unlike many of his peers, 2 Chainz doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is refreshing. He’s unpretentious, and just seems to be enjoying the limelight that until now had been denied to him. He’s earned his spot on this list.
Joey Bada$$ is this year’s breakout prodigy of the rap game, blowing up the New York rap scene at age seventeen with this summer’s 1999 mixtape, a time-travelling project that plays like a dusty vinyl from hip-hop’s Golden Era. Still in high school, he’s gained considerable recognition since posting a freestyle on YouTube that ended up on World Star Hip-Hop in October of 2010, leading to his signing with Cinematic Music Group, home to Big K.R.I.T and and SmokeDZA.
He’s the leading man of the Pro Era collective, who are signed to Cinematic as a whole. The group is made up of rappers, singers, producers, studio engineers, photographers and designers from Joey’s Edward R. Murrow high schoolin Brooklyn. The group released the Secc$ Tape mixtape in February, which furthered the buzz surrounding Joey. He appeared alongside CaseyVeggies in the video for Mac Miller’s track “America” (from his Macadelic mixtape), and has released several excellent videos of his own.
Joey Bada$$ is an integral part of a revitalized New York hip-hop scene, and is proof that there’s still hope for the younger generation in this game. With his whole life ahead of him, his future definitely looks bright.
Miguel’s been around since the year 2000, but his career lingered in development hell for a decade. He didn’t gain any real recognition until his debut album, All I Want Is You, became a sleeper hit after initially failing on the charts last year.
On October 2nd of this year, he released hisnew sophomore album Kaleidoscope Dream via RCA Records, which helargely wrote and produced himself, consciously taking a more active role inthe project. Something worked, because the album has since become both acritical and commercial success, debuting at #3 on the US Billboard 200, and selling more than 180,000 copies to date. The Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, Spin, Idolator and New York magazine have all included it in their Top 10 lists. It’s nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 55th Grammy Awards, and the single "Adorn" is nominated for Best R&B Performance, Best R&B Song and Song of the Year.
With this influx of recognition and more to come on the horizon, it feels like Miguel’s just getting started.
The most controversial member of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group is also it’s most intriguing and honest. His moniker says it all. Gunplay is unabashed and uncompromising in his lowlife glorification of drug abuse, sex and violence, somehow pulling it all off with charisma and humour. But like Chief Keef, there seems to be little distinction between his actual life and his music. He’s currently on house arrest for robbery and faces further charges for assault with a firearm.
He’s a wildcard, an essentially uncontrollable counterpoint to nearly everyone else in the group. But when he harnesses all that crazy energy in the booth, as opposed to, say, the BET awards, the effect is undeniable, and he shines.
After a slew of mixtapes under MMG, he signed to Def Jam in July, but remains under Ross’ imprint as well. He has a debut album in the works, titled Meddlin, as well as a mixtape titled Cops & Robbers. He’s also rumored to be working with Pharell.
If Gunplay can manage to stay out of trouble and resolve his existing court cases, his immediate future looks promising.
If Joey Bada$$ is a hero for the younger rap generation, Chief Keef is it’s anti-hero. The seventeen-year-old Chicagoan already has achild, has spent time on house arrest for weapons charges and has been investigated for a possible connection to the murder of Chicagoan rapper Joseph‘Lil JoJo’ Coleman. In a city wrought with violence, he seems to be a poster boy for everything that’s wrong with the city.
But raps about drug trafficking, sex and extreme violence sell, and Keef excels at this. He’s the youngest gangster rapper to surface inthe mainstream in recent memory, and there doesn’t seem to be much distinction between his lyrical content and his actual life. Lupe Fiasco claimed to be terrified of him, but Kanye West, another fellow Chicagoan, indirectly co-signed him when he remixed Keef’s “I Don’t Like” for a G.O.O.D Music Friday.
After a co-sign from West, it doesn’t take long for the buzz to amplify. Keef has since signed with Interscope Records and spearheaded his own Glory Boys Entertainment label, backed by solid production from Young Chop. His highly anticipated Finally Rich album is due out on December 18th. The hype surrounding him can’t be denied, and he’s earned a spot on this list. But Keef’s a young Tony Montana. We’re rooting for the bad guy here.
This has been a big year for Meek Mill. As the lingering hype from 2011 started to fade, he released his Dreamchasers 2 mixtape on May 7th, hosted by DJ Drama and featuring an all-star lineup of features including 2 Chainz, Jeremih, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean,Drake, Fabolous and French Montana. Thetape was downloaded a million times within hours of it’s release, which led to Meek’s signing with Roc Nation Management three days later, retaining his affiliation with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music GroupA month later, he dropped "Amen" as the lead single for his debut album “Dreams & Nightmares,” which was extremely well received. He then appeared on Mariah Carey's single "Triumphant (Get 'Em)," which exposed him to an even larger audience. He went on to release “Dreams &Nightmares” on October 30, 2012, with features from Rick Ross, Wale, JohnLegend and Kirko Bangers, Trey Songz and Mary J. Blige. It debuted at #2 on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 165,000 copies in its first week.
Nas,who is featured on the Dreams & Nightmares track "Maybach Curtains," has publicly stated that he’s keeping an eye on Meek Mill as a potentially hugeup-and-comer. This being the case, we thought it wise to keep an eye on him as well.
Machine Gun Kelly is probably the oddest addition the Bad Boy roster has ever seen. A lanky, 22-year-old white kid from Cleveland whose rap moniker is inspired by a Prohibition-era gangster with a penchant for machine guns. Raised on punk music, MGK brings all the intensity of a punk rocker to rap, with rapid-fire, mosh-pit-inciting lyrics and a flagrant, uncompromising presence that often leads to trouble with security and/or police.
His huge “Wild Boy” single, featuring Waka Flocka Flame and later expanded upon in an all-star remix, assured his acceptance in the mainstream. He was featured on XXL’s 'Top 10 Freshmen List' this year, and has been tearing up North American stages to promote his October-released debut album Lace Up, which has peaked at #4 on the Billboard 200 chart, and #2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album and Top Rap Album lists, respectively. It was preceded by the well-received Half Naked & Almost Famous EP.
MGK’s persistent energy is infectious, which is whatcaused him to break through this year. He both stands out in a crowd and hypes it up, getting listeners off their feet and inducing frenzy. He certainly has our attention.
After putting more than a decade of work in as an independent artist, Macklemore has finally attained large-scale recognition in 2012. He made the XXL Freshman Class of 2012, and was recognized in the Unsigned Hype section of The Source early in the year.
On October 9th, following several successful singles including “Thrift Shop,” Mack released his official debut album, TheHeist, a full collaboration with friend and producer Ryan Lewis, featuring appearances from artists such as Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, Eighty4 Fly, Hollis, The Teaching and Wanz. It reached the #1 spot on the US iTunes Albums chart within hours of being released, and debuted on the US Billboard 200 at #2, selling more than 78,000 copies in its first week.
Mack and Ryan Lewis are currently in the middle of a world tour promoting "The Heist," getting their names out and solidifying a place in the international hip-hop scene.
HNHH compiles a list of eleven artists, both new and old, whose careers took off this year.
With the relentless expansion of the Internet and the rise of social media, mass exposure is accessible to more artists than ever before, for better or worse. Each new year gives rise to new artists, as well as older artists attempting to reinvent themselves in the digital age.
Of this ever-growing yield there are artists that stand out, leaving a deeper impression than those that simply ride out and rely on that first taste of viral recognition.
We clearly couldn’t include everyone we had in mind, so we’ve compiled a list of the top 11 artists we feel have truly broken through in 2012. They’ve remained consistent throughout the year, surpassed the initial hype and show promise for the immediate future. Read on and see if you agree.
This is the first of many year-end lists. Be on the lookout for our other upcoming lists, such as Best Collaborations, Biggest Beefs, Top Videos, Biggest Singles and Top Mixtapes.