Before we get to sharing the bulk of our “best of” lists with you this year, it’s time to highlight 2015’s biggest surprises and success stories. The fifteen artists we’ve chosen for our breakout list seem even more diverse than those on last year’s list, with different genres, voices, opinions, and even countries being represented here. Some have popped up on our radars in the past few months, others have been grinding for years before getting their big break. Some have had big singles, some merely captured our attentions with their talent alone. Some have been introduced to us by more powerful figures in hip hop, others have seemingly done everything on their own, flipping a simple Soundcloud account into million-dollar deals and national recognition. One thing’s for sure though: all 15 have seen their fortunes drastically improved over the past 12 months.
Click on to view the alphabetically-organized list, and let us know who you think we missed or didn’t need to include.
Most of us were introduced to this raspy-voiced L.A. upstart (formerly known as Breezy Lovejoy) by two of the biggest names in his city: Dr. Dre and The Game. The artist’s meteoric rise can be traced back to show-stopping roles on Compton and The Documentary 2.5, more so than any of his solo work (or Knxledge collabs under the name NxWorries), which is certainly a rare case for any newcomer this side of A.L.L.A. troubadour Joe Fox. Even so, his recent output hasn’t exactly withered in the spotlight. Recent EPs with NxWorries and Blended Babies both showcase .Paak as very capable vocalist, but even more promising are all the tracks we’ve heard from Malibu, his upcoming sophomore album. 9th Wonder-produced “The Season / Carry Me,” the Schoolboy Q-assisted “Am I Wrong,” and the Game and Sonyae-featuring “Room In Here” are each more impressive than the last (so I’ve included all of them below), developing a distinct vibe to match their creator’s singular voice. Something like a dustier, more classic-sounding take on the airy Cali R&B of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, .Paak’s rapidly-coalescing sound seems like just the thing we’ll need in the early weeks of 2016.
We’ve been rocking with this Long Beach native since last year, when we premiered his still-fantastic debut mixtape Thirst 48, but thanks to a Jahlil Beat and two words, 2015 propelled him further than his “Bitter Raps” ever took him. “Oh My,” with its cinematic swagger and accompanying visual, thrust Boogie into the national spotlight, making the release of his next tape, The Reach, more of an event, leading to a major label deal, and allowing him to move to a neighborhood where his son could safely trick-or-treat. A humble, down-to-earth guy, Boogie’s the type of rapper whose personality makes it easy to root for him, and his presence in the mainstream is beyond welcome. Keep your eyes out for a commercial debut next year.
Drake’s influence could be heard in almost every corner of rap this year, but few newcomers who count him as their main influence have been successful in carving out their own lanes. Bryson Tiller is the exception. “I’ve always looked up to him like a big brother,” the Kentucky native said of his favorite rapper when I interviewed him earlier this year. All of the comparisons to Drizzy, PartyNextDoor and others don’t bother him though, and after such a huge year, they needn’t. Tiller pulled himself up out of a nonexistent scene in Lousiville using only his Soundcloud account, and now Lil Wayne’s remixing his tracks. TRAPSOUL was a promising enough debut, but Tiller’s potential is even greater. It’ll be fun to see where he goes next.
While it’s now safe to say that my former coworker Alex Ciccimarro went 0-10 in his published predictions for 2015, one proclamation he made to me off-the-record last December held true in a major way: “Listen man, ‘Trap Queen’ by Fetty Wap is the wave.” Indeed it was, but that was only the beginning of 2015’s biggest Cinderella story. The Pride of Paterson dominated the charts with songs that had formerly been dubbed “demos” on Soundcloud, breaking records here and there, and earning himself a debut album that was remarkably free of major-label meddling. A mixtape with French Montana and a fan-dedicated EP followed, and closed out what is unquestionably the most successful year of anyone on this list. He’s already handily surpassed one-hit-wonder status, but can he now be more than a one-year-wonder?
Like Boogie, Goldlink is someone else who we were introduced to in 2014, but surpassed his breakout mixtape with the follow-up. Last year’s God Complex located the DC native as one of rap’s most inspiring experimenters, not just dabbling in dance music, but making it integral to his style by weaving it in with booty bass and Neptunes-style production to create a sound he dubbed “Future Bounce.” His commercial debut, And After That We Talked, arrived via Soulection, one of the most promising new indie labels, and added more depth to an already-thrilling career. A spot on the XXL Freshman list may have been a surprise to some, but anyone who’s taken a minute to peruse his lyrics or catch a live show knows that Goldlink deserves all of the accolades he’s gotten, and will most likely continue to get.
One of the few Torontonians to break out from his hometown while bearing little to no similarities to Drake, Jazz Cartier is otherwise a sponge in the rap game. His excellent Marauding In Paradise tape draws from trap, boom-bap, R&B and indie rock, an eclectic outing that nonetheless holds up as a rewarding listen all of the way through. He may be one of the least accomplished artists on the list, with no major collaborations or deals that we know of, but he’s picking up steam on the site, with his new tracks getting about ten times the traffic as the first one I posted a little over a year ago. He has immense promise at this point, and seemingly endless lyrical ability, so it seems more than likely that he’ll continue to wow us in 2016.
The one woman to make the cut this year, Kehlani is also the breakout artist who seems like she’s just getting started. She’s got two great projects, 2014’s Cloud 19 and this year’s You Should Be Here, to her name already, but with an Atlantic deal that includes her own label imprint, the young Bay Area talent has all of the resources she needs to become a top-tier R&B artist. Her unique voice, superb songwriting and careful creative control all point to a future as an A-list writer, album creator, and hooksmith– basically whatever she desires to do most. Collabs with Chance The Rapper, G-Eazy, and BJ The Chicago Kid all boosted her visibility this year, but sometimes she’s even better when it’s just her and her go-to producer Jahaan Sweet, an incredibly gifted multi-instrumentalist who recently graduated from New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. Right now, she seems like the Bay’s best hope for a mainstream star.
This young cat is all but completely disconnected from the bruising street rap that first put Philly on the map and still runs through Meek Mill’s veins, instead veering closer to the sounds of the South and Chicago. This year, Vert successfully blended his melodic trap with G Herbo, Lil Durk (on the stunning Freddie Gray tribute “Pressure”), DP Beats, Sonny Digital, Young Thug, and Cardo, many of whom contributed to his excellent tape Luv Is Rage. He’s still got a ways to go in terms of tightening up his sound and forming a distinct identity, but the connections and hype are most certainly there. Expect Uzi to bring his hometown into the 21st century.
Joining the ranks of Boogie, Goldlink, and Kehlani as an artist who needed a year after his breakout project to truly become a force to reckon with, Chicago’s Mick Jenkins notably expanded his sound between The Water[s] and Wave[s], incorporating jazz, electronica and even some trap into his somewhat classicist repertoire. Admittedly, the more recent project was a bit jumbled and less well-crafted than its predecessor, but as the compilation of new tracks that Jenkins billed it as, it showed more promise than anything we’d heard from him. His next full-length, hopefully an album, will be a product of the same kind of attention to detail that drove Water[s], only this time, we’ll probably hear all of the new sounds Jenkins has been experimenting with. A close runner-up to Vince Staples in rap’s wise-beyond-their-years category, Jenkins is the type of artist who seems like he’ll be around for quite some time.
Nef The Pharaoh
All you need to know about the move away from regionalism that’s been brought on by the internet is contained in Nef The Pharaoh’s 2015 hit “Big Tymin.” Here’s a guy who hails from the Bay straddling the sound that DJ Mustard copped from the Bay Area and circa-1996 Cash Money bounce. Situations like this can be confusing, but in that single’s case, we’re having too much fun to question the DNA. Nef capitalized on the song’s success with a recent EP, which not only showed that he had more than one catchy track in him, but also contained one that might even eclipse “Big Tymin.” The Cardo-produced “Michael Jackson” is one of the most unabashedly gleeful pop-rap tracks of the year, led by giddy synths and Nef’s melodic comparisons to the King Of Pop, and seems like it still has the opportunity to get big.
A young, geeked up Carti came up to the HNHH office in January 2015 accompanying Father for an Awful Records interview. At the time, Father seemed like the surefire star, but a few months later, at an Awful show at SOB’s, that seemed to have changed. Carti’s “Broke Boi,” which had been making the rounds between tastemakers online, sparked the craziest crowd reaction of the night, with moshing and lyrics recitation that went unmatched throughout the rest of the night. Then A$AP Rocky signed him, and our suspicions were confirmed: Carti’s gonna be huge. He’s still light on solo material, or really any material at all, but what we have heard is undeniable. “Fetti,” a track he recorded with Maxo Kream and Da$h on a smoked-out, lean-drenched bender at SXSW, is still one of my picks for best songs of the year.
One of the more unlikely success stories in recent memory, Post Malone shares Carti’s light-on-actual-music, heavy-on-hype status, but similarly, everything he’s done has been well received. Of course, it all started with “White Iverson,” the earwormy single that’s still getting played around the country, but the singer’s chops persisted on follow-ups such as “#mood,” “Came Up,” and especially “Too Young,” one of the most moving tracks we’ve heard all year. As we’ve gotten to know him better, Malone has informed everyone of his wide-reaching goals in music, which include becoming a country star and quitting rap after a few years. Let’s hope he gives us at least a few full-lengths full of dope material first though.
Of all the artists on this year’s lists, Skepta’s been around the longest. The grime superstar has been a big deal in The UK since the mid-2000s, but for many Americans, he was best known for a music video so explicit that it can only be hosted on porn sites, that is until this year. Thanks to a Drake co-sign, an appearance alongside Kanye West during the show-stopping debut of “All Day,” and a three-peat of heat rocks (“That’s Not Me,” “It Ain’t Safe,” and most importantly “SHUTDOWN”), he’s now the face of grime’s new school that’s storming the US by the second. At a show in New York this summer, “It Ain’t Safe” prompted such a crazed response that he was forced to run it back three times despite all the dust the outdoor crowd was kicking up. After he drops his next album, Kamikaze, that’s the sort of thing that should be happening on the regular during his US shows.
Coming in a close second to Skepta in terms of artists who’ve seen long-term grinding pay off in a big way this year, Tory Lanez is undoubtedly a familiar face to the HNHH audience at this point. His #FargoFridays series is an institution by now, but 2015 is indisputably the year things all panned out for Tory. “Say It” has become his biggest hit to date, and Tory signed to Interscope, but it’s deeper than that. He contributed vocals to major label albums by Meek Mill and G-Ezay, and on his own, released the fantastic Cruel Intentions EP with Shlohmo’s WeDidIt collective. Tory Lanez is now the rap game’s best example of hard work paying off.
Kind of existing in the shadow of his school buddy Chance The Rapper’s wildly successful career before 2015, Vic Mensa made huge waves this year without releasing all that much music. He emerged with a darker sound than was displayed on his 2013 breakout tape, or any of the ensuing, dance-inflected tracks, no doubt courtesy of his new mentor, one Mr. Kanye West. “U Mad” was huge, as was his appearance on “Wolves,” but even outside of his work with his city’s biggest icon, Mensa shone. A deal with Roc Nation and hints at more collabs with Skrillex mean that big things are in store for this Chi-town phenom.