This was an outstanding year for newcomers in hip-hop, with plenty of stars breaking through the mold and planting their first seeds as the next generation's most impactful rap artists. While the music industry, along with basically every other industry, shut down the year prior due to the pandemic, things returned to a sense of normalcy within the music realm in 2021. New stars were made in each genre and the next crop of young up-and-comers naturally appeared, adapting to the breakneck speeds of the music business and proving that they can operate alongside even the most established acts.
From the first quarter to the fourth, new talent really did dominate this year, shaking things up and putting their own spin on things. From Coi Leray, who absolutely had a hold on all things social media this year and released some memorable, catchy anthems, to CKay, whose song from 2019 blew up and took on a new life on TikTok and other platforms, we listed some of this year's hottest breakout artists of the year below.
Let us know which young star you're most excited about in the coming years, and stay tuned for our take on the Best Freestyles of the Year, coming tomorrow, Friday, December 10.
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Few artists had more of a traditional “breakout” campaign in 2021 than New Jersey rapper Coi Leray. At the beginning of the year, many had prematurely written off the artist as “corny,” due in part because of her father, Benzino, who has been an infamous character in the culture for decades. With her hit single “No More Parties” though, she managed to shake off her critics, convincing them that she could elevate to the very top of the rap game if she wants to.
After her viral success on TikTok and other social media platforms, Coi put on show-stopping performances at festivals including Rolling Loud, and she was also a support act on Lil Baby and Lil Durk’s sold-out joint tour. With catchy follow-up singles including “TWINNEM,” “BIG PURR,” and “At The Top,” as well as a solid feature run on songs including “Ocean Prime” with Bfb Da Packman, “Attachments” with Pressa, and “2055” with Sleepy Hallow, Coi has solidified her spot and she continues to prove her haters wrong each and every day -- and it's all happened before she even dropped her debut album.
As she continues, it will be interesting to see whether she embraces more of her roots by sticking to a hip-hop-oriented sound, or if she crosses even further into pop. One thing is for sure: Coi Leray has confidence for miles and she was in all kinds of conversations this year, making her one of the most obvious breakout artists of 2021.
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Fayetteville, North Carolina-raised rapper Morray technically started his breakout campaign last year with the release of “Quicksand.” Fast forward to the end of 2021 though, and he’s widely regarded as one of the fastest-growing artists in hip-hop.
This year was an important one for the 29-year-old, who grew up as the lead singer of his church’s choir. His powerful voice, combined with his touching story as a troubled young man who found his escape through music, allowed millions of people to fall in love with the happy-go-lucky artist, who genuinely seems thrilled to be in the position he's carved out for himself.
This year, Morray proved that he has what it takes to stay in the game for a long time by making a lasting impression on J. Cole’s song “My Life,” which is one of the best records from Cole’s The Off-Season, an appearance on the Madden 22 soundtrack, and his own debut project Street Sermons. Through his spot on J. Cole’s album, Morray earned his first career GRAMMY nominations this year, making this a year to remember for the star.
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Boston-raised recording artist BIA has been around the music industry for years. She was a star on the reality show Sisterhood Of Hip Hop before signing to Pharrell Williams’ I Am OTHER label in 2014. Two years later, she gained notoriety for her feature on “Safari” by J Balvin and three years later, she had a huge record again with Russ’ “Best On Earth.” It took the 30-year-old rapper until this year, though, for millions of music fans to finally find out what she’s all about, coming through with her project FOR CERTAIN at the end of 2020 and going viral with a couple of records this year.
If you logged onto social media at any point in 2021, there was a good chance that you came across BIA’s easygoing flows about hitting the bodega in Bottega. “WHOLE LOTTA MONEY” was a monster hit before the remix arrived, with none other than Nicki Minaj. As she promoted the record, Nicki gave BIA some major props, elevating her in the eyes of many rap fans who were previously unfamiliar with the Afro-Latina and Italian singer.
Nicki’s co-sign and BIA’s untouchable delivery made way for the deluxe edition of her EP, which included new collaborations with G Herbo and Sevyn Streeter. As she continues to grow, BIA has cemented herself as one of the new generation’s top female voices in rap, and we’re expecting more from her in the coming years.
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If we’re talking about breakout artists from the last year, there’s no way we could leave out 19-year-old rap prodigy Nardo Wick. The Jacksonville, Florida native only started rapping two years ago but he’s already proven to many that he has what it takes to become a superstar in the music industry.
At this point, his story hasn’t been completely told yet. However, with Who is Nardo Wick? being released last week, rap fans are starting to learn more about the promising artist. After bursting onto the scene in 2020, the shy, soft-spoken teenager began to channel his anger into art, eventually delivering the blistering “Who Want Smoke??”
A song of the year candidate, “Who Want Smoke??” saw Nardo jump out of the gates with his head held high, advancing the rap ranks quickly. After Lil Durk, G Herbo, and 21 Savage hopped on the remix, hip-hop’s most beloved superstars, including Future, Lil Baby, and others, began touting the rapper as the “next up” and they don’t seem to be telling any lies.
What’s most special is the fact that he built this for himself before even releasing his debut album. This is really just the start for him.
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Some people would argue that each of the last three years could be considered a typical “breakout” year for Las Vegas rapper Baby Keem. Witnessing his rise to the top of the rap game has been entertaining for day-one fans to be part of. You may recall, when he was still known professionally as Hykeem Carter, HNHH was one of the first major platforms to give Keem a co-sign back in 2018. That same year, he started converting his critics to fans through his work on cousin Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack.
In the next two years, Two-Phone Baby Keem would go on to impress the masses with his mixtapes The Sound Of Bad Habit and Die For My Bitch. The latter of which has become an integral part of Keem’s discography, but it was 2021 when the rapper truly came into his own.
After showing flashes of brilliance in previous releases, Baby Keem earned his first-ever GRAMMY nominations with his releases this year, breaking out into the mainstream while still staying true to his unique creative spirit. Dropping his debut album The Melodic Blue, which has been named one of the best hip-hop albums of the year on multiple year-end lists, including ours, the 21-year-old received nominations for Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Song at next year’s GRAMMYs. He’s no longer hip-hop’s best-kept secret, and you can be sure that Baby Keem will have the game in a headlock for the next few years.
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The world has known about Chloe Bailey and her sister, Halle Bailey, for years. As part of the R&B group Chloe x Halle with her little sister, she became recognized worldwide as Beyoncé’s protégé, working closely with the musical legend and soaking up any and all information that she could from the all-time great. At the very beginning of this year, Chloe and Halle launched their respective, solo social media pages. The move proved to work wonders for the 23-year-old Chloe, who rebranded mid-year as Chlöe and released her very first single by herself, titled “Have Mercy.”
The song was an instant hit on TikTok and other platforms, and it followed an attention-grabbing year from Chlöe, who spent the summer making fans hungry for her solo music with regular thirst traps, teasers, snippets, and her take on every viral trend imaginable.
It all worked out for Chlöe and despite her having only two solo songs out, including a recent cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” this year was the start of what is promising to be a monster impact for Chlöe on the music world.
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This has been an insane year for Louisville rapper EST Gee. At the beginning of the year, it was announced that the 27-year-old artist had been signed to Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group label. That commenced a hot streak for Geeski, who made a strong impression during his freestyle for Funk Flex before being named the “next Young Jeezy” by Lil Baby. People really started paying attention to him after Baby released “Real As It Gets” with a feature from Gee, which he obliterated.
Dropping Bigger Than Life Or Death in July, the rapper found his way in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart for the first time. The album included some of this year’s hardest rap songs, including “5500 Degrees” with Lil Baby, 42 Dugg, and Rylo Rodriguez, and “Lick Back.”
Alongside rap superstar Jack Harlow, EST Gee is making Louisville proud. He capped off his breakout year with the release of Bigger Than Life Or Death Part 2, which arrived without any features. At the rate he’s moving, Gee will be a problem for years to come, and with Yo Gotti’s guidance, he will surely continue to develop in 2022.
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Before 2021, Nigerian singer Tems had not fully broken into the American market. With a unique sound that combines alternative R&B with neo-soul and other genres, Tems placed her artistic focus on reshaping alternative music in Nigeria. Her mission led her to become an international success, working with some of the biggest artists in the entire world and featuring on, quite probably, the most anticipated album of the year.
Not only was Tems a standout feature on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album on the song “Fountains,” she also earned her very first GRAMMY nomination for her appearance on WizKid’s “Essence,” which was a song of the summer (and year) contender. After Justin Bieber hopped on the remix, Tems’ status was amplified even higher stateside and the release of her project If Orange Was A Place solidified her as one of the most exciting new artists in R&B overall. While this was the first year that many of us learned about Tems, she’s found a permanent place in our hearts, and our playlists.
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Hailing from Nigeria, Africa’s boyfriend CKay is blending emo-pop with afrobeats for a sound that has rarely been frequented. Back in 2019, CKay released his hit record “Love Nwantiti” and while the song was an immediate success internationally, it took a while to cross over to the States. Now, when you log onto social media, specifically TikTok, you can’t miss the song.
With his uncomplicated melodies, the young rising star touched the hearts of millions with “Love Nwantiti,” effectively breaking him into new global zones. Fans of the record can’t wait to see how CKay will follow up his viral success and with his breakthrough track surpassing over 500 million worldwide streams, it will be interesting to see how the young singer-songwriter follows up in 2022.
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Bronx-raised recording artist Capella Grey is setting himself up to become the next big star in the R&B world, impacting the world with his song of the summer candidate “Gyalis,” and following up with a strong feature run to close the year. Earning co-signs from some of the industry’s most well-respected artists, including Busta Rhymes, Chris Brown, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Popcaan, and more, this was an unbelievable year for the rising talent.
“Gyalis” was one of the most unavoidable songs of the last year -- specifically for New Yorkers, who heard the song blaring on car speakers all summer long. The “Back That Azz Up” sampling record was a surefire smash and it opened the eyes of millions who now expect big things from Capella. To that effect, he followed the record with an appearance on Kawhi Leonard’s Culture Jam album, in addition to a recent feature on DreamDoll’s song “You Know My Body.”
During an interview with HotNewHipHop, which will be published next week as part of our 12 Days of Christmas series, Capella Grey mentioned that he finds music was slightly stale in 2021, and he believes that he can introduce something different to the game that’s been missing. He’s clearly betting on himself and with “Gyalis” serving as the perfect-sized stepping stone for the 26-year-old artist, fans are anticipating some magic from his upcoming project in 2022.
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Coming out of The Bronx, DreamDoll has been around for a few years. However, it feels like when she first broke out, she was slightly overlooked next to the other “Dolls.” At the time she started gaining attention, other rappers, including Asian Doll, Cuban Doll, and Kash Doll were also all commanding our attention. There was an abundance of “Dolls” coming into the game, and Dream might have taken a bit of a backseat as the others shined. However, fast forward to 2021, and she’s in the running for the top Doll in hip-hop, showcasing her hard-witted flows and New York flavor in her raps.
The former Love & Hip Hop star had an incredible year, kicking things off with her Versace-clad “Different” freestyle. After that went viral, she went on a nice little feature run with artists including Yung Pooda, CJ, Erica Banks, and more. She closed out the year with quality efforts on “Tryouts” and “You Know My Body” with fellow breakout star Capella Grey, as well as an appearance on Halle Berry’s Bruised soundtrack.
At this rate, it feels like DreamDoll is operating with plenty of momentum on her side. She may already be a well-known name in hip-hop circles but in 2022, she could very well come with even more fire, proving her critics wrong with each new release.
Did we miss anybody? Let us know who your favorite breakout artist of 2021 is, and be sure to check out our other year-end lists here.