The first month of the new year is a time to start fresh. From wardrobe to music, it’s out with the old, in with the new. Of course there’s room on iPods and car stereos for veteran MCs to mingle with newbie soul singers, but there’s a certain thrill when a good ear catches the sound of an undeniable new talent. Hip-hop and R&B has birthed some mesmerizing artists in the past, and this year will continue the tradition, adding a slew of groundbreaking entertainers.
Rap-Up.com has an eye on 10 buzzworthy crooners and rhymers, who earned a spot on our list of Artists to Watch. There’s a stellar songwriter who’s written for Trey Songz and worked his way into the spotlight, a singing Brit with a penchant for headdresses, a Harlem rap star rocking Margiela threads, and two unsigned femcees who can go bar for bar with the boys.
Delve into the next wave of trendsetters.
Not since Cam’ron and Ma$e entered the rap game has a rapper out of Harlem generated such strong discussion surrounding his rhymes. Twenty-three-year-old A$AP Rocky is the newest New York representative boasting a solid résumé since emerging on the scene. His lyrics are dipped in southern sensibilities and his attire is a mix of streetwear and high-end designers like Raf Simons, which can be witnessed in his video for “Peso,” a track that finds Rocky detailing his ruggedly rich lifestyle alongside his A$AP crew. Late last year, the self-professed “pretty motherfucka” signed a lucrative major label deal with Polo Grounds/RCA Records, adding to his growing acclaim. Then there came his Live.Love.A$AP mixtape featuring collabos with Schoolboy Q and production from Clams Casino. Now in 2012, the stylish MC is crafting his debut, directing new videos—he took on camera duties for his “Purple Swag” video—and leaving his lyrical stamp on the masses.
Roc Nation has a loaded roster and the label’s newest femme fatale sits in a petite frame, has a killer smile, and calls the U.K. home. Twenty-year-old songstress Rita Ora may be a blonde vixen with a luscious set of lips, but she’s more than just a pretty face. Who else can do a cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and turn it into a mellower, soulful tune without sounding corny? Yes, this Kosovo native can. Fans may think she popped up out of nowhere since she recently began releasing a string of viral videos to support her movement, but the chanteuse has been linked with the Roc since 2009. After labelmate J. Cole dropped his album last year, all eyes are now darting in her direction to see what she’ll craft in the months to come. Her debut LP is in the works, with hot shots like Drake, The-Dream, and Stargate lending a hand to create a stellar product. To hold fans over until its release, check Ora’s sonic yet fashionable cameo in DJ Fresh’s “Hot Right Now” video.
When a rapper can hold his own on a remake of Drake’s Bay-inspired track “The Motto,” it’s cause enough to take a listen to his efforts. New York-born, West Virginia-bred rhymer D-WHY crafted “Kate Upton Is the Motto,” his version of the Toronto MC’s smash and a dedication to Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton. At 23, he’s a wordsmith, can pass for a Gap model, and a college graduate with a degree from West Virginia University. His witticism can be heard on “Shooter McGavin,” his take on Childish Gambino’s “Freaks and Geeks,” or “Devil Horns to All,” an ode to Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” and will surely be demonstrated on his upcoming mixtape, Don’t Flatter Yourself. Diggy Simmons is already tapped to appear on the project and lauded producers Hit-Boy, Boi-1da, T-Minus, and Dot Da Genius are locked in for production.
With a name like Neon Hitch, there’s reason to pay attention. Britain’s darling has a left-of-center birthname, vocals to match, shocking red hair, and rocks feathery headdresses, which all adds to her appeal. The 20-something free spirit garnered much of her attention serving up playful vocals on many of hip-hop’s biggest tracks. First there was her cover of Wiz Khalifa’s “On My Level,” then a spin on Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci,” and her interesting take on Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands”—check the accompanying video to find the singer sporting fishnets, showing her derriere, and giving a set of handcuffs some interesting play. Since Neon left her circus days behind her—she’s a trained trapeze artist, fire swinger, and stilt walker—collabos with Gym Class Heroes on “Ass Back Home” and a signing with Warner Bros. Records have followed. Her first album, Beg, Borrow, and Steal, is set to drop later this year, with the naughty single “Fuck You Betta” heating up the Internet.
Some songwriters stay behind the scenes penning hit songs for superstar entertainers but never get the chance to step into the spotlight. Bei Maejor is an exception, boasting songwriting credits for artists such as Trey Songz, Frank Ocean, and Ne-Yo, and grabbing center stage as a crooning talent simultaneously. The Michigan native has dropped a slew of mixtapes since 2010, the first being his infamous ÇpÄ±sdn uÊop project. Since then, Maejor has worked with the likes of Soulja Boy, Diggy Simmons, and J. Cole. The latter can be heard on his single “Trouble,” along with Nelly, Wale, Trey Songz, and T-Pain, who appear on the all-star remix. A production wizard is also a title he lays claim to—his songs have landed on soundtracks for Bratz: The Movie and The Princess and the Frog—so keep a look out for his forthcoming LP, which is set for release on RCA Records and may very well house some of his beats.
New York is home to a bevy of rap stars and while first instincts look to the likes of Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim when recalling notable female MCs from the Big Apple, there’s a new lady in the house that garners the same respect for her lyrical delivery. Meet Azealia Banks, a feisty Harlem resident who already has big names like Kanye West touting her as the “future of music.” She’s keen on the color purple—just look at her current hair color—and she doesn’t take kindly to insults, which her recent beef with Kreayshawn indicates. Just follow her on Twitter to get an inkling of what she’s like outside of the spotlight. Her viral video for “212” proves she’s a kooky character with a rhyming style that is all her own. Though she’s yet to announce a label deal, she was once signed to U.K. imprint XL Recordings under the name Mi$$ Banks. These days she’s gearing up for her Coachella performance and working alongside Lady Gaga’s stylist Nicola Formichetti, who is directing her video for “Liquorice.”
Before rap fans knew his face, they undeniably knew Future’s lyrics on the gangster film-inspired track “Tony Montana.” The Down South rapper’s catchy tune had the nation chanting the famed Cuban drug lord’s name and even sparked interest from Young Money rhymer Drake, who tacked on a verse to the original song. Though Drizzy was absent from the accompanying visuals, the ATLien still had a co-sign from one of hip-hop’s main guys. Currently, Future’s an Epic Records signee, who had the opportunity to sit in front of executive L.A. Reid, rightfully earning his position on a major label roster. While he preps his debut Pluto, his lyrical stylings can be heard on his new mixtape Astronaut Status, featuring 21 songs with assists from Young Jeezy, Ludacris, and Gucci Mane. The Future looks bright.
Good hip-hop comes in all shapes, sizes, and art forms, and Iggy Azalea is a prime example. Her long blonde tresses and a slender frame could have critics putting her in the model category, but this Australian rapper would rather spit a mean 16 on a mic than walk a catwalk. In October 2011, she impacted the rap game with her mixtape, Ignorant Art, a nine-track offering that was inspired by famed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. One of the project’s eyebrow-raising tracks is “Pu$$y,” which spawned a Cali-inspired video showcasing the lyrical lady rhyming about her nether regions. The 21-year-old is prepping her debut album The New Classic, a title she’s already inked on her fingers. While she’s still an unsigned MC, there are rumors circulating that she may join Rihanna at Def Jam. The dotted line may not be signed on a deal just yet, but we’re sure it’s only a matter of time before she’s in the big leagues.
Not every artist has the opportunity to reinvent themselves as a solo act after initially emerging on the scene as a duo, but Luke James can say he has. Once part of the soulful twosome Luke and Q, the R&B crooner has stepped out on his own with the help of production master Danja, who signed James to his New Age Rock Stars imprint via Def Jam. The New Orleans native, who attended the same high school as Frank Ocean, demonstrates his powerfully emotional vocals on his new EP, #Luke, an effort that delivers strong ballads like “Signs of Rain” and “I Want You”—ladies will love his video for the song, which depicts his chiseled frame soaking wet in the rain. James has already logged studio time with British songbird Estelle and beatmaker Jerry Wonda for his solo debut. For those questioning his work ethic, James is a seasoned professional, having written songs for Justin Bieber (“That Should Be Me”) and Chris Brown (“Crawl”).
Remember boy group B2K? Super fans of the crooning foursome may recall a young singer by the name of Jhené Aiko, who appeared in some of their videos and even opened up for the R&B dudes on the road. In 2003, she had a chart-climbing song, “No L.O.V.E.,” that made its way onto the Billboard charts. Nearly a decade later, Jhené is again making a name for herself with her gentle pop-tinged vocals. Last year, the 23-year-old L.A. songstress debuted Sailing Souls, a mixtape that made a lot of noise in the R&B spectrum. Drake, Miguel, and Kendrick Lamar all showed up on the effort, which mixed her sensually sweet voice with hip-hop-centric beats. Before 2012 hit, the black-haired beauty joined forces with Chi-town producer No I.D., who now occupies a label position at Def Jam as vice president of A&R, and became a signed singer once more. She says she’s “not your next Beyoncé,” but we think Jhené has the ability to serve up sonic gems all the same.