When a fire starts to burn, right? Every year, thousands of artists look to somehow break into the music industry, and make an impression big enough that will resonate in the minds of potential listeners. The 10 artists (actually 11) on this list have done just that in a variety of ways. Some accomplished this with calculated and eye-opening appearances on other artists’ projects. Some released tantalizing material of their own that was as short as it was jaw-dropping. Then there are those artists who have seemingly been doing this “music thing” for years, now at the point where their exposure has reached critical mass; and it’s put up or shut up time. Come December, we’ll see how these predictions actually played out. But for now, it’s just exciting to speculate and see how their musical narratives will unfold. Some are obscure, others on the precipice of legitimate fame, while the rest are caught somewhere in between. But you should know, there’s level to this sh*t. So read on, discover, and enjoy.
10. Evian Christ
Evian Christ (real name Joshua Leary) is a 24-year-old genre-bending electronic producer from the UK. In 2013, he gained some welcome attention through his production credit on Kanye West’s Yeezus for the writhingly explicit banger that was “I’m In It”. In terms of sound, Christ specializes in making music that (sometimes hauntingly) mesmerizes through the sampling and distortion of hip-hop and R&B, much like Lapalux. Yet unlike his fellow UK producer, Christ’s music sounds darker with a clearer direction and purpose. With 2011’s Kings and Them, Christ’s 8 -track minimalistic mixtape, he loops otherwise overlooked Tyga lyrics from the rapper’s song “Snapback Back”, along with other obscure references like snippets of E-40 and Suzanne Vega.
One of Christ’s defining characteristics is his combination of rumbling bass and hypnotic synths that arrest but never overwhelm. His sound has definitely evolved since then, an observation most evident when listening to “Salt Carousel”, Christ’s blaring 2013 single that drips with an abrasive Yeezus influence, and is the lead track off of his forthcoming Waterfall EP due out in March.
Evian Christ on how he got into producing:
My dad was always, like, really into music, and he had…in the ’80s he used to play keyboards and shit. Like, he wasn’t really a producer, but he was just really into wiring keyboards and all that kind of shit, he was super musical. So as technology progressed and I kind of reached an age, maybe like 15, 16, where I could make sense of what he was doing, it kind of just was a natural thing for me to be interested [in]. And I’ve always been really into music, too, and really interested in how it’s made. For as long as I can remember, it’s been something that’s interested me, even if it’s something I didn’t know how to do, you know?
9. Samantha Urbani
Samantha Urbani is in an interesting position. While she was the frontwoman for the promising Brooklyn band Friends (who seem to have broken up prematurely), she now finds herself in the perfect place to launch her solo career. This is due to her phenomenal work on her boyfriend Dev Hynes’ excellent Blood Orange project, Cupid Deluxe. Those who were previously unfamiliar with the gifted hipster songstress were blown away by her impassioned singing and prowess on a credited 7 of the album’s 11 tracks. Specifically, Urbani’s heartbreaking performance alongside Hynes on the song “You’re Not Good Enough” was hard to ignore. But for those who were already acquainted with the 26-year-old, it came as no surprise that Urbani wasn’t lacking in the vocals department.
She’s been labeled many things, but the one that seems to stick the most is “alternative diva”, as Urbani most closely sounds like the indie rock version of Mariah Carey. Dev Hynes deep background in R&B has clearly influenced Urbani’s sound, something made obvious upon listening to Friends’ latest (and possibly last) release “The Way“. What will be most intriguing will be seeing whether or not Urbani will return to her indie roots in the future or stick to the gut-wrenching rhythm and blues that’s garnered her so much praise as of late. She might even officially consider herself as part of Blood Orange now. Urbani’s said, via her Twitter, that we’ll be able to hear new solo material from her this year but a whole album is still unconfirmed. Whatever happens, we’ll see soon enough.
Samantha Urbani on artists having creative input:
…everyone has the potential to be holistically creative and have their music come from a real place, and have a visual aesthetic come from a genuine place. But I think a lot of people have their fear of vulnerability or failure that takes over, so they just comply with whatever they think is the right choice, rather than the right choice for them.
-via Outline Online
Before 2013, Sampha was a somewhat shrouded figure. With there being only one solo song to his name on Soundcloud, and only a few real pictures or even descriptions of what he looked like, Sampha seemed more like a pleasant idea than an actual person. The UK crooner had worked in a supportive role alongside London producer SBTRKT, by providing backing vocals on his 2011 self-titled debut album, and even performing with him on stage in a mask. You could point to his playful, heartfelt duet with Jessie Ware (“Valentine“) as a turning point in the soulful singer’s young career. But I think it was his small albeit scene-stealing performance on Drake’s “The Motion” that garnered Sampha legitimate interest from the mainstream in who he was. Not long after that, Sampha released his Dual EP, a soulful and at times heartbreaking project that served as the first real glimpse at how gifted the singer truly was.
You can hear something in his soul-shattering voice, like a certain melancholiness that no amount of time will be able to take away. Even with relatively upbeat tracks like his collab with London producer Lil’ Silva, “Salient Sarah“, or the majestically beating “Without”, a particular brand of lingering sadness isn’t able to completely separate itself from Sampha. But as inconsiderate as it sounds, sad music makes for some of the best music. This year, we’ll be able to see if the Londoner can channel his emotions into a cohesive project. But with everything he’s done so far, that concept doesn’t seem very far-fetched at all.
Sampha on his thought process while writing “Indecision”:
I wrote it around the time of Amy Winehouse’s death. It’s slightly about myself but more about someone who has problems; fundamental issues. That thing of trying to have the courage to work through your problems. “Let it all work out” is kind of a mantra in itself but it’s also saying you can’t always let it all work out– you have to have the courage to do something about it: the courage to have a relationship with someone, to tell people how you feel without those feelings being reciprocated, to analyze yourself– all those things.
– via Pitchfork
7. Charli XCX
True story: The ‘XCX’ in Charlotte Emma Aitchison’s on-stage persona stands for “X-Rated C*nt X-Rated”. While this fact may be offensive to some, the name speaks volumes to Charli’s aggressive personality and charisma. The 21-year-old singer has settled in comfortably to the futurepop genre with a punk rock edge that’s as abrasive as it is charming, possessing a sultry English accent that compliments her striking vocals. Her 2013 album True Romance was strong and truly a pleasant surprise for a debut, blending a clear electronic influence that fuses R&B and pop into a project that set a high bar for all of her future musical endeavors. Part of Charli’s appeal is that she has no filter, and frequently states exactly whatever the hell it is she’s thinking or feeling in a given song.
But even with all of her success in such a short period of time, the Hertfordshire native has no plans of slowing down in 2014. This was made perfectly clear when Charli released the insanely catchy first single to her second album, “SuperLove”. It’s not clear exactly where Ms. XCX will go with the sound of her next project but whatever direction that may be, fans and critics are excited regardless.
Charli XCX on her next album:
Well, I mean, it is a pop record, but [SuperLove]’s definitely the most pop song at the moment. Everything else is a lot more, yeah, like I said, a lot more angry and shouty and more aggressive than that. I feel like I don’t want to write another record about love, even though that’s just kind of naturally always been my instinct. I’m trying not to just write songs about love all the time because people probably get bored of my antics.
6. Hudson Mohawke/Lunice (TNGHT)
In 2012, Lunice and Hudson Mohawke released their joint EP as TNGHT, a trunk-rattling production duo whose beats were simultaneously menacing and powerful while still maintaining a sense of fun. The self-titled project was brash and loud yet still masterfully crafted, like two eccentric ring-leaders directing a circus of organized audial chaos. If you listened to their hour-long 2012 mix for Diplo & Friends, it was easy to tell that the two were both eclectic and had a wide-ranging taste in hip-hop and R&B. Their influences and musical appreciation varied, from their remix of Waka’s “Rooster in My Rari” to their love for SpaceGhostPurrp and his Raider Klan collective. But TNGHT’s selective ears were best put on display when creating stadium-worthy anthems like “Higher Ground”, which obscurely samples Julie McKnight’s “Home”, or constructing the tightly-coiled, synthed-out bedlam of “Goooo”. In 2013, Hudson Mohawke and Lunice received even more attention for their work with Kanye West. Specifically, it was their song “R U Ready” that provided the basic framework for Yeezus‘s brutally beautiful “Blood On The Leaves”.
On December 28, to the dismay of many of the duo’s fans, TNGHT announced that they were splitting up for the time being to focus on their solo projects. But if you were paying attention to LuckyMe (TNGHT’s label) and their “Advent Calendar” releases, then you would have heard two intriguing offerings from HudMo and Lunice. HudMo’s track “Structure” was a weird, slowly-bubbling creation that looped variations of Shamz Le Roc repeating the phrase “gotta get that booty structure”, that was humorous but ultimately satisfying. Lunice went the full-on instrumental route with his “Steady Flexin”, a haunting beat with booming bass, eery voice distortions, and sequences that rapper’s would foam at the mouth to spit over. All in all, those who know TNGHT shouldn’t underestimate each individual’s impressive ability to create and adapt. While the two aren’t currently making music together, Lunice and Hudson Mohawke made it clear from the jump that TNGHT was only a showcase to display their skills as artists. In 2014, the individual spotlights the two have on them have never shown brighter.
Hudson Mohawke on TNGHT as a continuous project:
It’s ongoing. We don’t want it to become our main focus. We want it to be a big project and get as much attention as it can, but our solo careers still have to be the main priority.
– via Interview Magazine
5. Lil’ Bibby
Besides the transition in the late 1950s to early 60s from big band jazz and pop to the “devil music” that was rock & roll, there probably hasn’t been a more polarizing offshoot of music than “Drill”; one of hip-hop’s newest and most controversial subgenres. This violently hard-hitting category of rap is criticized by many for championing gang culture, and validating vengeful, murderous attitudes that the black youth in the South Side of Chicago have for each other. While this is a legitimate observation, the reality of the situation isn’t as black and white. If you’ve been able to watch documentaries like ‘The Field’ or catch an episode of Noisy’s new series ‘Welcome to Chiraq’, it’s pretty apparent that this way of life isn’t something many of these gang members choose. Instead, these are young people who are caught in a cycle that’s not very easy to escape from. On the contrary, the escape is the retelling of these raw, emotional emcees’ stories in the form of drill; potentially getting them out of the very situations they’re rapping about. Think of the subgenre as an outlet, or even a potential meal ticket.
There are many rappers now whom have recently gained popularity after rising up from the Chicago Drill scene, like Chief Keef, King Louie, Fredo, and Lil’ Durk just to name a few. But arguably none of them have shown as much promise, in terms of mixing that tenacious drill-mentality with legitimate lyrical ability (besides maybe King Louie), as Lil’ Bibby has. The 19-year-old’s rap name sounds almost comical, especially after hearing him speak with a voice that sounds like it should come out of a 35-year-old hardened war veteran’s mouth. The young rapper has a tight, menacing flow that’s able to adeptly maneuver through his selective drill production. Free Crack, Bibby’s debut mixtape, set the internet ablaze in 2013, putting him in serious contention for the coveted ‘King of Drill’ title. In 2014, it’ll be interesting to see if Bibby can really capitalize on this surge of recent momentum.
Lil’ Bibby on connecting with the music:
I like to get something outta the music. I ain’t gonna lie, sometimes I play the Keef when I wanna nod my head, get turned up. But the music I think stick around is the music that got a message to it, you can get something out of it. Make you think, or make you wanna do something, you know.
-via The Fader
Kaytranada, birth name Kevin Celestin, is one of those rare musicians who seems to actually possess the Midas touch. Just by chance I ‘discovered’ him while listening to a Ryan Hemsworth mix and, being highly intrigued by what I’d heard, eventually stumbled upon his Soundcloud page. What I found there was a musical goldmine: a place where you could literally be stuck navigating through for hours. Kaytranada, a Montreal native, has his own unique style and sound to him that can make almost any track he works on instantly infectious. Jumping tracks like his version of “Why Don’t We Fall In Love” or his rework of Teedra Moses’ “Be Your Girl” are perfect examples of this. The aforementioned style makes him very versatile as both a producer and DJ, allowing him to tackle a variety of different genres (like the soft rock of American Royalty’s “Mariah“). But usually Kaytra brings it all back to his bread and butter, which is house-infused R&B with some pretty booming bass.
This talented beatsmith is an excellent remixer, yet his original material is nothing to sleep on. The funky, looped grooves of “At All” set a nice mid-tempo pace that’s nearly irresistible, and if you prefer straight up hip-hop beats, he’s got you covered. The exact release date of his debut album is still unconfirmed but it’s expected to be out at some point in 2014. He’s also been in the studio with Disclosure, and is producing for Chicago rapper (and blog favorite) Vic Mensa’s album. As much as we cover Kaytranada here, it’s pretty obvious the excitement for a full-fledged project is pretty high. So in the words of a famous New York Jets linebacker.. “Can’t Wait!”
Kaytranada on what fans should expect from him in 2014:
Oh, I don’t know… I mean, I will say this: I’m definitely working towards releasing an album. It might be released in 2014, it might be released 2015, I don’t know, depends on if I’m feeling it or if I get into the right creative groove within the next year. But, we got some big things planned out, some collabos and projects that I don’t think people are ready for; I really don’t think y’all are ready for it.
– via LA Canvas
Last year, 25-year-old singer Jillian Banks from L. A. stepped out of the darkness of complete obscurity and into the light that was the internet’s ever watchful eye. The throbbing despair of her first release “Before I Ever Met You” lured listeners towards her, then the enticing tepidness of “Warm Water” kept them ensnared. Over the past year, her reputation has quietly grown and her take on dark, electronic R&B has gotten better and better. While she’s yet to fully embrace her rapidly increasing popularity, the former psychology major has definitely proven that her talent is not to be ignored. In interviews and on-camera appearances Banks is noticeably reserved, letting out a small laugh here and a pleasantly wry smile there, but never completely betrays what’s going on in her head. Instead, that reticent emotion is unleashed in her music, and you’re allowed to hear and feel what she’s feeling. She even spells it out for us in songs like the exceptional “This Is What It Feels Like”, a slithering tale of ambivalence and unrequited love.
If Banks learned anything from touring with The Weeknd last fall, it was that people like ‘mysterious’. The more you leave to the imagination, the more fans that are intrigued. As someone who has cited Fiona Apple and Lauryn Hill as major influences, Banks combines a seductive, stirring voice with raw passion and sincere, if vulnerable, songwriting. She’s also done a phenomenal job of working with younger, talented producers who are also on the rise. Her excellent London EP allowed her to work with the likes of Lil Silva, TEED, Jamie Woon, and SOHN. She even recently teamed up with Shlomo to give us one of her most powerful songs yet, “Brain“. Banks will be very busy in 2014, taking part in numerous festivals like SXSW and Coachella, but her debut album is expected out sometime in the fall. If last year was any indicator, the young Angeleno has nowhere to go but up.
Banks on her studio sessions:
It’s the most amazing feeling when you go into the studio and you know nothing about the person you’re working with and then you start writing, and the most raw and emotional stuff, stuff that they probably wouldn’t tell who they’re married and who they’re close with, just comes out.
To put it bluntly, Grimes is what many people (not me) would consider a weirdo. Her Twitter avi is currently a picture of Pixie, a fairy-winged teleporting mutant of X-Men fame. Her hair, which is shaved on the sides, changes colors almost as often as Rihanna changes boyfriends. When she’s not killing the Twitterverse with hilarious thoughts and introspective musings, she’s playing Pokémon to her heart’s content. She has no cell phone. And she practically wears whatever the hell she wants. But it’s all of these intriguing eccentricities that make Claire Boucher such a fascinating person and contribute towards her outstanding skills as a musician. As Grimes, Boucher creates her own form of synthpop that’s off-kilter and charmingly unusual. This was best exemplified with her 2012 album Visions, a project that was critically-acclaimed and hailed as a breath of fresh air for the pop genre.
Grimes uses dreamlike synths and instrumentation, which combine with her soft vocals in reverb, to create an atmosphere where it almost feels like the listener is caught in a musical twilight. Whether it’s the syncopated drums in “Be A Body” or the hazy mood that sets in after listening to “Vowels = space and time“, it’s not hard to hear all the different sounds that are at work in Boucher’s production. And even though the Vancouverite was very quiet last year (musically speaking), she’s been hard at work on a new album that’s expected to be out in September. After recently signing to Jay Z’s management label Roc Nation back in December, it’s apparent that Grimes is inching closer and closer to the mainstream. Let’s just hope that this coming out party, of sorts, doesn’t affect what made her so great in the first place.
Grimes on describing her own music:
I mean, I think my sound is post-Internet. People my age had the Internet when they were kids. So I think I just had a really diverse musical background, but from a really young age. People who are 30 and older don’t have that—they were raised with genres of music. But people my age had everything all at once, and that’s why we get Animal Collective and all these weird medley bands. Because genres are sort of disappearing, people just use bands as reference points. And if I were to describe my sound, I’d just say it’s “modern?”
– via Interview Magazine
1. ScHoolboy Q
It’s do or die time for ScHoolboy Q. As the second-most popular member of Top Dawg Entertainment, behind the ever-present Kendrick Lamar, the self-proclaimed “Man of the Year” has a lot to live up to, and a big shadow to step out of. Yet if there’s anyone who can do this seemingly insurmountable task, it’s 27-year-old Quincy Hanley. Q, much like his biggest rival K Dot, is one of those rare rappers who can appeal to the masses without changing who they are, selling out, or getting too gimmicky (I’m looking you square in the face Wiz Khalifa). ScHoolboy is inherently a man of “the set”, growing up as a Hoover Crip in Compton, and this is reflected in nearly every verse he spits. His experiences of selling crack and Oxycontin on the corners of Figueroa St. while ducking the police, opposing gang members, and potential ‘rats’ are all detailed on his classic West Coast rap album, 2012’s Habits & Contradictions. Yet it’s Oxymoron, Q’s major record label debut (Interscope), that looks to be the project that will either make him into a legitimate rap star, or turn him into another cautionary tale of a wasted opportunity. I’m willing to wholeheartedly bet on the former though.
From what fans have heard over the past year, ScHoolboy sounds hungrier than ever. His rhymes are grittier, grimier, fueled by a desperation to take care of his young daughter, Joy. “My daughter needs some shoes,” Q now says almost on a regular basis with any chance he gets. In the head-banging “Yay Yay”, he maintains his unwavering honesty, something he’s known for, with the declaration “I’m a drug-dealing ni**a, cuz them grades ain’t get me paid”. On the recently released “Break The Bank”, Q furiously reels off lines like “Hustled for my meal/Grinded for my deal” and “Go hard for my joy/So she don’t need no boy”, reaffirming to anyone who will listen that this no longer (and perhaps never was) a game to him. And while “Man of The Year” is a more radio-friendly single, ScHoolboy still sounds like an emcee in his prime and on the come up. If Chicago’s Drill music is bringing gangster rap back to the forefront of the genre, then people like Freddie Gibbs, Jay Rock, and ScHoolboy Q are the current forefathers. But unlike the younger emcees from ‘Chiraq’, the latter three now realize that that life was just a means to an end, something they had to leave behind in order to progress. Well on February 25, after so much speculation and delay, we’ll see just how far Q has come.
ScHoolboy Q on his album title:
The oxymoron in this album is that I’m doing all this bad to do good for my daughter. That’s why I’m robbin’. That’s why I’m stealin’. …Whatever it is that I’m talking about in my album [that’s] negative, it’s always for a good cause, for my daughter.
-via Hot 97