Since its creation in the ‘70s and subsequent rise to mainstream popularity in the ‘90s, hip-hop has seen many faces. What started as the backdrop to block parties quickly evolved into a sharp, political voice for communities across America and eventually the world, branching out into the subgenres we still know and love. From the dawn of gangsta rap, to East Coast and West Coast rivalries, to Neo Soul and Southern, it’s this versatility and constant reinvention that speaks to the longevity of rap as a dominant genre.
Then, when it was nearly destined for repetition, bound to be lost in the early ‘00s shuffle, came the likes of Kanye West. Say what you will about the man but not only did he resurrect rap music, he made it socially acceptable—nay, cool—to talk about Jesus in the club. His success paved a path for rappers who wanted to explore new themes and sounds while embracing vulnerability.
Decades later, having survived many reimaginings, we’ve reached a place where Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar can sit comfortably on the same song. In fact, when we look at the genre, we’re almost spoiled for choice. With a history of confronting controversy head-first, modern rap touches on sexuality, masculinity, mental health, and more. And just when we thought innovation had reached a standing point, a wave of fresh talent has come to completely reshape the genre we know and love—again. Here are a few artists pleasantly surprising us by doing things their way.
Discovered serendipitously on the streets of Philadelphia, Tierra Whack burst onto the scene with a weird and wonderful style. Playing with a menagerie of trap beats, rap ad-libs, and straightforward vocals, she’s put her own discernable mark on hip-hop with a refreshingly comical approach. Her first album, Whack World, is comprised of 15 minute-long songs that explore somber themes through a light-hearted lens. Each song is just short enough to leave you wanting more. Since then, she’s put out a number of full-length singles proving she can own a full three minutes, and was featured on Beyonce’s latest album.
Wondering where to begin? I recommend “Wasteland,” “Hungry Hippo,” and “Mumbo Jumbo.”
Hailing from London, the artist describes his sound as G-Folk—crossing genres to create rap fused with folk and a touch of reggae. The city is well-known worldwide for its grime scene, and while it would have been easy to lean into this already popular subgenre, Baker has foregone it entirely to forge something interesting and distinctive. Acoustic guitar, refreshingly earnest lyrics, and vulnerable vocals are all prominent throughout his most recent album, Babylon.
Wondering where to begin? I recommend “7AM,” “Venezuela Riddim,” and “Grief Eyes.”
Named after the Yoruba goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, this duo celebrates all things spiritual and ancestral. Hailing from DC, the artists describe themselves as the musical expression of Afrofuturism. Pitting themes of magic, ancestry, and nature against self-exploration, love, and adulthood in America, their latest album, bittersweet Vol. 1, is a testament to their immense talent. They may begin a song rapping with all of the bravado we’ve grown accustomed to, but then they fade into soft vocals—keeping you on your toes the entire time.
Wondering where to begin? I recommend “Burn,” “We’re Yung,” and “Blessings on Blessings.”
On the surface, Chika sounds like a commercially popular rapper we’d hear on the charts. But pay attention, and an honest vulnerability uncommon among women in popular rap shines through. Her flow switch-ups alone earn her a spot on the list of new artists to watch out for. Having just released her first album Industry Games this year, the 22-year-old Alabama native takes on like race, Alabama abortion laws, LGBT+ rights, and body positivity with the backing of industry heavy-hitters. Shying away from difficult topics has never been her thing, and it makes for an enthralling listen.
Wondering where to begin? I recommend “High Rises,” “Can’t Explain It,” and “Crown.”
I know in writing this I’ve left out hundreds of incredible artists, both underground and mainstream, who’ve left their mark on hip-hop history. Whether you’re entirely new to the genre or are an aficionado, consider this a starting point to exploring new artists contributing to another rap reinvention. Off you go!
Photo by Matt Allen for Pitchfork.