It’s a tricky business to try and predict which artists are going to “blow up” in any given year. For one thing, as we learned in 2020, a lot can happen in a year. The whole music industry can shut down, just like that, leaving a lot of up-and-coming names lost in the lurch when it comes to commercial success and public recognition. A breakout is hard enough under normal circumstances, so when a pandemic threatens the livelihoods of an entire industry, making assumptions can feel a little like throwing darts at a wall of index cards. Even defining what a “breakout” means is a complicated question based on expectations and circumstances — and whether those are reasonable or not.
Even if you’re confident that someone’s buzz has reached the level that they can break through the mainstream’s radar ceiling, there are still the dark horses who come from seemingly nowhere to blow up “overnight,” the blind spots that keep critics like me from recognizing a rising star in the making before they go supernova, and the unexpected flameouts thanks to social media cancel culture, encounters with the law, or worse, the sudden demises of artists caught up in street life as they take steps to leave it behind.
So, it’s not a normal year and this isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive or surefire list. But the artists here are primed for their proverbial mango seasons. Maybe they have well-received mixtapes or EPs out that have put them in a position to overtake the competition. Perhaps a hot single has a grassroots movement of fans eager to see what they come out with next. Or they’ve been slowly building their buzz over the course of the last year, with a promised album prepared to push them over the top. These artists may not be guaranteed to become the next No. 1-selling hitmakers or ubiquitous corporate pitch people, but they’re our picks for the rappers to watch out for in 2021. Their fuses are lit and targets are set, now all that remains is to see whether they can live up to the hype and really bring the noise.
By the way, if you don’t see a name here you expected to, you may want to check out Uproxx’s upcoming 2021 Most Anticipated Albums list, where quite a few rising artists have placements thanks to their previously announced albums we expect to drop at some point this year.
Kendrick Lamar’s cousin was a 2020 XXL Freshman but didn’t release much new music last year to capitalize on the added attention. That seems fine, though, because the buzz from his 2019 single “Orange Soda” and the fan fervor for a follow-up seem to be enough to warrant watching out for any moves the Vegas-based upstart makes this year.
Hailing from Los Angeles and arriving with his solid No Love Lost EP, Blxst made a splash after solidifying his underground support with a strong feature run. After releasing the deluxe version of his debut, Blxst became a fan favorite whose melodic blend of West Coast cadences and soulful content made an impact that has fans everywhere anticipating a full-length.
“Throat Baby” is being hailed as an underrated classic in the making that just needs a push, and with his partnership with Atlanta-based LVRN, it’s one he’s almost certain to receive. The indie is home to previous breakout stars like 6lack, Shelley (FKA DRAM), and Summer Walker, so they’re batting close to 1.000 so far. There’s no reason to think they won’t make a star of the raunchy crooner as well.
Coi Leray may have been introduced to curious fans as the girlfriend of Trippie Redd or the daughter of Benzino, but her Now Or Never EP firmly established she’s got chops of her own and enough charisma to carry her own career unassisted. It doesn’t hurt that she’s an exuberant Instagram extrovert who accumulates views by the bunches with her bubbly dance videos and unique fashion sense.
I’ll admit I slept on this Florida native and almost put fellow Floridian Jackboy here in his stead. But then he released Double O Baby at the end of 2020 and blew me away with his polished presentation and ability to rack up views in bunches. With a distinctive look — I know you see that hair — and an engaging style that justifies the attention, Hotboii looks like as much of a sure bet to blow up as it gets.
Thanks to his 2019 video “Need Me,” the self-declared “Prince Of N.Y.” may very well be the second alum of Lifetime‘s The Rap Game to find his way onto XXL‘s coveted Freshman cover (after season one winner Mulatto). He’s received cosigns from Drake and Lil Tjay, built up a respectable collection of mixtapes, including 2020’s Welcome to GStarr Vol. 1 and Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 3, and has nailed the signature sing-rap style his city’s become known for. All that adds up to a potential star who racks up the YouTube views by the millions.
Kota The Friend
Although Brooklyn’s Kota The Friend is already two incredible albums into an auspicious career, his penchant for building out his albums’ rollouts with impressive features and polished presentation has the potential to make him one of the most commercially viable indie artists since Chance The Rapper. With his second volume of Lyrics To Go dropping this month and plans for a follow-up to 2020’s Everything, Kota may be one of those underground breakouts no one was expecting but few will be surprised by.
Quality Control’s track record speaks for itself. The latest acquisition, Milwaukee’s Lakeyah, looks like a shoo-in to continue that winning tradition, especially after her City Girls-featuring, Time’s Up single “Female Goat” drew attention to her sharpshooter flow, converting some of her labelmate’s fans into her own.
Chicago rapper Lil Eazzyy popped up from seemingly nowhere in November with the Underrated EP, earning a sizable buzz on Twitter and ensuring the eventual obsolescence of the EP’s title. His drill-influenced style combined the bouncy, chatter-box rhyme style of DaBaby or Chicago’s Midwestern cousins in Detroit with the moody, menacing beats favored by fellow Windy City native Polo G into something singular and captivating.
The imposing Mario Judah is certainly a beguiling figure within hip-hop right now. He looks like a cross between the school bully and the weeb that bully regularly victimized while throwing trap, heavy metal aesthetics, and an impressive fearlessness into the blender. He’s also got a strong grasp on marketing himself — while he already has an innovative style of his own, he also used a witty campaign of trolling Playboi Carti to piggyback on the more popular rapper’s buzz, ensuring more exposure for himself. That’s turned into a real groundswell of support that may very well pay off big this year.
The melodic rapper from Raleigh turned a flurry of projects in 2020 — Platinum Heart, Poetic Pain, and the 11th-hour release Dickpressed — into a truly deafening buzz in relatively short order. “Love Cycle” and “Sapiosexual” with Summer Walker have garnered a massive and vocal female audience, while a cosign from resurgent Chicago drill Renaissance man Lil Durk is sure to increase Toosii’s popularity.
Young Nudy’s been bouncing around the industry for a few years but until recently was best known for his 2019 arrest alongside his cousin 21 Savage. However, after making a strong debut that year with the Pi’erre Bourne joint project Sli’merre and following up with 2020’s expressive Anyways, Nudy appears to be just one hit song away from making the leap to superstardom. His ability to crossover from doing tracks with Dreamville on Revenge Of The Dreamers III to featuring on Lil Uzi Vert’s Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World 2 doesn’t hurt either.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.