If there’s one thing that gets most of us through the day, it’s music. Whether we’re scrolling through Soundcloud looking for mood tunes to get us through a case of the Mondays or listening to a mixtape someone has sent our way, not a day goes by without some kind of music playing in our office. This year, amidst the many crises, disappointments and acts of violence, the role of music as everyday therapy has felt particularly necessary.
The ups and the downs of 2016 seemed to have reinvigorated the social conscious of many artists as well; this year produced some of the most overtly political albums we've seen in a long time. It's also been a year of loss: Prince, David Bowie, Phife Dawg, Maurice White and George Michael are just a few of the iconic names who passed away. Yet for all of the ills of 2016, staunch fans of reclusive singer Frank Ocean will doubtlessly always remember it as the year of Blonde.
For the artists on our list perhaps 2016 will also be remembered as the year of watershed career moments. After all, they've all got a bright 2017 ahead.
Cakes Da Killa
26-year-old Rashard Bradshaw aka Cakes Da Killa first launched his career during his high school days in Teaneck, New Jersey. Young, creative and utterly bored, Cakes began writing raps to instrumentals he found for free online. After posting some of his early experiments to Facebook, the would-be rapper was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reception. Soon after, in 2011, he released his first mixtape Easy Bake Oven, Vol. 1.
By 2014 the Cakes' outlier brand of hip-hop was garnering mainstream nods and a fierce following in New York's underground scene. That year he also appeared on Hot 97 during Ebro and Peter Rosenberg's well-known segment. It was the first of many interviews that would make his unapologetic inclusion of his queer identity the lens through which many viewed his music.
Since then Cakes' talent for wordplay and tongue-twisting, suggestive lyrics have reached beyond the underground. He’s been featured in a short film, partnered with brands like Converse, toured with Red Bull Music Academy and made several other appearances as part of the platform's robust music programming. Cakes also appeared on the lineup for several major festivals in NYC and abroad.
The crowning glory of 2016 remains the release of Cakes' first feature-length album, Hedonism. It's an intensely narrative project that blends experimental hip-hop with house, hardcore rap and industrial elements. The album serves as the ultimate primer to Cakes, encompassing his past and present, and providing a segue into what will likely be a breakthrough 2017.
At the age of 27, South London-born musical dynamo Sampha Sisay's emotive production and syrup-and-smoke infused vocals have put contemporary icons like Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Solange, under his powerful trance. With production credits on critically-acclaimed albums ranging from Nothing Was The Same to more recent efforts such as, A Seat at the Table, Sampha is hardly a new face in the music industry. Since his debut in 2010, the singer has also collaborated as a featured voice on projects with SBTRKT, Lil Silva, FKA Twigs and more.
One of the earliest examples of Sampha's skill emerged in 2010 when debuted the EP, Sundaza. The project took the form of a mostly instrumental six-track offering that illuminated the mind of Sampha as a producer. Then, in 2013, he released Dual, an achingly honest EP featuring more of what fans would come to recognize as Sampha's signature vocals. During an interview with Pitchfork, the artist described songwriting as a painful process, stating, "When the lyrics and the music is so real and raw, it’s not even pleasurable. For me when I’m writing something really personal, I don’t feel good about it.”
In a time where transparency and honesty in music is often replaced with swagger, posturing and endless homages to the good life of champagne-popping and excess, the introspective, sometimes ugly nature of Sampha's lyrics are a punch of reality to the gut that you didn't know you needed. His latest project, Process, will be his debut feature length album. Set for release in February 2017, it just might be the soundtrack that serves as the backdrop to Valentine's Day heartache. Either way, it will be worth the listen.
There aren't many 20 year olds that can put a co-sign from MF DOOM on their resume: Markel Scott aka Bishop Nehru can. His career began at the tender age of 13 when he started sharing self-produced, jazz-influenced tracks online. By 16 it had become clear that Nehru's talent went far beyond his young age: He had already been tapped to open Wu-Tang's 20th anniversary European tour, and also caught the attention of radio stations like Hot97 and Power 105.
In 2013 Nehru also released his critically-acclaimed debut mixtape Nehruvia, which featured production from the likes of MF DOOM and Madlib. The following year he announced that he would be one of the first artists signed to Nas's Mass Appeal Records. Since then, Nehru's creative capabilities have expanded into editing and directing music videos.
Nehru's cerebral lyrics and pared-back production indicate a deep appreciation for classic hip-hop and a '90s-slanted ethos that looks back to the golden age of rap. This year the young rapper faced a few hurdles, the largest being his amenable departure from Mass Appeal. However, with the release of the long-awaited mixtape, Magic 19 in June, and a renewed interest in old school hip-hop tropes ushered in by those like himself, Joey Bada$$, Dave East, Nick Grant and others, Nehru's newfound freedom makes 2017 a year of opportunities.
Washington D.C. born rapper GoldLink brings a refreshing and utterly fail-safe combination of nostalgia and in-the-moment lyricism that reflects our cultural zeitgeist. His music is undoubtedly influenced by his stomping grounds, pulling from the DMV area's thriving go-go and club music scene. The rapper first came to mainstream attention with his 2014 mixtape, The God Complex, a roiling vat of energy that challenges even the most devoted wallflower not to dance, or at the very least bob their head.
In a 2015 interview with NPR the rapper explained that encouraging people to let go was the whole point of his music, stating, "I create music for people to dance to again. In black culture, you know, we used to go swing dancing. We used to go out to go dance and actually have fun. That's kind of a lost art with what's going on now. People just go to the club to hate on n*****. I'm like, "What's the point?" You know what I'm saying? God gave us music and limbs to move around. So I try to encourage that as much as I can for my crowd. It's a really good thing that people respond to that in this day and age."
Since then, GoldLink has gone on to share studio time with super producer Rick Rubin and release After That, We Didn't Talk, through Soulection. The highly-anticipated project served as an equally soulful followup to The God Complex. 2016 has been good to Goldlink, and with 2017 on the horizon there's nowhere to go but up.
Self-appointed "Darkwave Duchess," Abra, is one of the few women on Awful Records' lineup. She's also one of the label's most talented signees. Born in Queens, New York, and raised in London and Atlanta, Abra's love affair with music has been a lifelong journey. She picked up the guitar at the age of 14 and soon after began making her own music. In 2014 she was discovered by the rapper Father, and subsequently signed to Awful Records.
Deeply influenced by internet culture and the experimental spirit of today's youth, Abra's music is a reflection of our times and values. There's a dreamy, darkly ethereal aspect to her lyrics that is only enhanced by an intentionally lo-fi sound quality. Listening to Abra is something like the auditory equivalent of watching an underwater light show.
This year the former underground darling has been making mainstream headlines, garnering nods from The Guardian for having one of the best R&B songs of 2016, and also nabbing a style feature in Vogue. Abra also secured the release of her EP, PRINCESS, through True Panther. The success of the project marked her distribution debut with a major label. If her momentum is anything to go by, 2017 will only bring her more exposure.
You may know 25-year-old rapper Noname by her former name, Noname Gypsy. The Chicago-bred emcee is among the most exciting female voices coming out of a city that has provided talents ranging from Joey Purp and Chance the Rapper to Chief Keef and Montan of 300. Boasting a background in slam poetry and spoken word, Noname's output is marked by a jolting intimacy and vivid lyrical expression that is matched by few.
She first came to attention in 2013 when she was featured on Chance the Rapper's critically-acclaimed mixtape, Acid Rap. The two had met years before through a program called YOUMedia which served as a networking space for upcoming musical talents. The year after she made an appearance on fellow Chicago native Mick Jenkins, The Water[s] mixtape. From there, Noname's immediately recognizable style of rap-poetry and pitchy, almost child-like voice infatuated many. Yet despite the widespread interest Noname has remained very private, often drawing on a pre-existing community of creatives to aid in projects like Telefone, her debut mixtape.
Noname also announced several tour dates earlier this year and has reportedly already sold out more than half of the stops. Earlier this month she also appeared alongside Chance the Rapper on Saturday Night Live. In 2017 she's set to independently release an eponymously titled album. With longtime industry friends like Chance and Mick Jenkins, who knows what kind of features we may see.
Kamaiyah is yet another rapper proving that 2016 was a good year for the '90s revival. The Oakland-born rookie channels the futuristic outlook of iconic emcees like Missy Elliott and MC Lyte who paved the way for female narratives in hip-hop. Kamaiyah also shared that she was deeply influenced by '90s R&B, counting Aayliah and TLC amongst her idols. Her first single, "How Does It Feel," released in 2015, to widespread critic approval.
A year later she released her first mixtape, A Good Night in the Ghetto, which includes a feature from fellow West Coast rapper YG. The project pays homage to Kamaiyah's Oakland roots, running the sonic gamut from retro R&B to new interpretations of West Coast G-funk. The success of the mixtape eventually translated into a spot on YG's Fuck Donald Trump tour as well as a feature alongside Drake on the rapper's Still Brazy album.
Jesse Boykins III
Born in Chicago, Jesse Boykins later spent his childhood in Kingston, Jamaica before relocating to Miami and then eventually Brooklyn, New York, where he currently resides. In New York, Boykins attended the New School and went on to be mentored by recording artist Bilal. Over the last decade Boykins has been quietly and steadily producing a stream of hyper-affective and faithfully method-rooted soul music.
In August of this year he released BARTHOLOMEW, a followup to 2014's The Love Apparatus. Despite the lack the fanfare around the release the EP received overwhelmingly positive reviews. BARTHOLOMEW was produced through audio mastering company LANDR as part of their inaugural residence program where Boykins was the first artist in residence.
The EP is also a reminder that Boykins' buoyant songwriting and penchant for dreamy production really doesn't require the cavalry, though he certainly didn't hesitate to call it in. The project is rife with features from some of today's most promising names: Syd of the Internet, Isaiah Rashad, Mick Jenkins, Willow Smith, Noname and Little Simz are only a few among Boykins collaborators and real life friends. Despite the powerhouse lineup BARTHOLOMEW's exploration of love, life and human relationships remains Boykin's own narrative through and through.
Atlanta has become an incubator for the latest emerging talents and Russ is just one of the names poised to cross over from regional notoriety to national attention. Born in New Jersey and raised in Georgia, Russ made his presence known after dropping out of Kennesaw State University to start DIEMON, his own record label and hip-hop collective.
In 2013 Russ released his first mixtape, Straight From Limbo. The project gained some traction but he still remained largely under the radar. He followed up his debut effort the following year with a project titled, Pink Elephant. However it wasn't until 2016 when he signed to Columbia Records and released the single, "What They Want," that his presence was felt on larger scale.
The single reached 22 on US rap charts and 33 on rap and hip-hop charts. Now with a major label behind him, a charted single, over 40 million Soundcloud listens, and his first plagiarism lawsuit, it's looking like 2017 will be the year that defines Russ.
If Goldlink's music represents a microcosm of the DMV's vibrant dance and club scene, then Maryland-born Jason Mills or Jay IDK (Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge) represents a subsection of hyper-aware, intensely jaded, disenfranchised youth. Like Goldlink, Jay's music hits a hard-to-find sweet spot. He manages to combine sophisticated delivery and gritty real-life narratives with typical scenes of youth such as partying, drinking and school.
Jay's debut release, Sex, Drugs and Homework, dropped in 2014 and introduced the rapper as an introspective spirit whose understanding of the world was lightyears beyond his age. In 2015 he followed up with SubTrap, another genre-pushing effort that is by turns groovy and danceable, and bleak in its honesty. Tackling subjects ranging from marginalized neighborhoods to Jay's own stints with incarceration, the first of which occurred when he was only 17, SubTrap is a chronicle of life's triumphs and pitfalls.
His latest project, The Empty Bank tackles money - one of hip-hop's defining subjects - with clear-eyed intention and precision. Jay fearlessly ruminates on mass consumption and the realities of wealth, money and power. Sure it's a timeless topic that has been explored over and over again, but it has rarely been unpacked with the skill, nuance and natural storytelling ability of Jay IDK.