Art by Meaghan Garvey.
The main problem with most “Rappers to Watch this Year” lists is that they suck. They’re dictated as much by Trojan Horse PR buzz, social media favoritism, and plain hedged bets as much as actual taste, and at Noisey, we think that’s no good. In 2013, hip-hop is as diverse, fun, and straight-up incredible as it’s ever been, and we want to tell you who’s worth your time this year. Some of these guys you might not know about yet, others are already your new favorite rapper, and others still might be names you’ve written off who you should really reconsider. As such, this isn’t as much a bunch of predictions as to who we're guaranteeing to blow up this year as much as it’s a survey of what we find interesting, weird, and worthwhile in the realm of rap.
Special thanks to Davey Boy Smith of Southern Hospitality and Frances Capell of Real Gold Plated for going above and beyond with helping compile and write this list, Meaghan Garvey for contributing art, and Martin Spasov for jumping in and helping at the last minute.
Berkeley’s 100s came through on a strong West Coast pimp rap revival tip with his September debut Ice Cold Perm, which gets more impressive with every listen. With lines like, “Bitch I’m finna slide through/ Fix a nigga Thai food,” and, “I’m sippin’ on yak/ Not textin’ hoes back,” his lyrics are even colder than his impeccable, impossibly cold perm. Underscored by Joe Wax’s slick production, he totally nails an iconic, undeniably Californian sound without sounding cheesy or dated. As someone whose entry into the rap world was Snoop Dogg and Too $hort, it makes me giddy to see a fresh young talent laying the pimp hand down. Plus, I can finally leave Danny Brown alone as I have a new head of rapper hair to obsess over. —Frances Capell
If the rap game were a John Hughes film, San Jose’s Antwon would be the dude from the wrong side of the tracks wearing cut-off Pantera T-shirts and scheming on Molly Ringwald’s virginity. With his deep, powerful voice and dark inclinations, his songs are best suited for a house party where shit gets broken and girls get naked. On his latest mixtape In Dark Denim, he raps brazenly about freaky sex and rocking a broken Motorola phone over beats resembling the warped soundtracks of a box of dusty VHS tapes. The 26-year-old rapper got his start in punk bands and I just found out he still lives with his mom, but somehow, that makes him even more real in the not-giving-a-fuck sense of the word. Isn’t that pretty much what being hardcore is all about? —FC
The Houston rapper, producer, and grand supreme ass-quaking authority's emphatically acerbic baritone launches into U Ain't Bout That Life with, "It's Beat King Strip Club Kong, got yo bitch naked in my muh'fuckin phone." Punctuated with adlibs unleashed from uncharted depths of the diaphragm, your mouth and eyes can't help but water and widen before the monstrous bass kicks in and floors you. This is par for the Beat King course, and it's some of the most intensely satisfying and dramatic rap music being made. Central to the brilliance of the self-proclaimed Club God, though, is his Larry David side. An infinitely better Internet user than most rappers, he's created his own method of real-time social commentary, a WSHH-fuelled strategy that simply boils down to him waiting for stupid shit to happen and then freestyling about it. And his #TeamChoppers hater-culling trending topic slash online lynch mob is a brutal spectator sport that often ends in the deserving victim deleting their Twitter. The fact that Beat King's instrumentals drop like Felix Baumgartner and are turned to by Europe's rap-loving, "EDM Trap"-phobic electronic DJ set as the connoisseur's big-room alternative, only means that when he does penetrate outside of Texas this year the world will be close behind. —Davey Boy Smith
North Carolina is not necessarily known for its rap scene. There’s J. Cole, who doesn’t really count, and Little Brother, who don't really exist. But there is a third way. Much like late-period capitalism produced Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, North Carolina and the Internet helped produce Deniro Farrar, one of the few rappers to be both on the block and in the cloud. Which is to say that Farrar is as hard as they come, but he just so happens to talk his shit over pillow-fluffy beats from a murderer’s row of producers such as Ryan Hemsworth, Keyboard Kid, Friendzone, and Flosstradamus, creating an ambiance that contributes to the gravitas of his verses. When I interviewed Farrar a couple months ago, he shared with me exactly how grave his situation is: he’s got a brother on trial and two kids, and so he’s gotta make it happen for himself, like, now. He’s released three essential projects: The Kill or Be Killed EP with Shady Blaze, Cliff of Death with Blue Sky Black Death, and his recent solo shot The Patriarch. Oh, and if you didn’t hear he kinda killed SXSW. —Drew Millard
Okay so yeah, this one's kind of a gimme, but we'd be pretty remiss to not include Earl on this list. After returning from the wilderness, Thebe's return to rap has been limited but pointed—a well-executed guest verse here, a gut-wrenching solo track there, culminating in the recent "WHOA," which combines Earl's unmatched wordplay with his newfound commitment to not rapping about overtly terrible things. Flying Lotus has been serving as his live DJ lately, and by all accounts Earl's upcoming album Doris is gonna be nothing short of mind-blowing: rumored collaborators include The Neptunes, Alchemist, Thundercat, RZA (apparently), as well as the usual Odd Future gang. Still, it's important to remember that Earl's still developing as both a rapper and an adult, and though he may very well bring balance to The Force (or rap music, whatever), the most we should really be asking of him at this point is to follow his bliss. However, as this recent live footage can attest, Earl's new shit is sick, and Mac Miller is becoming mostly pretty alright. —DM
At this point you’re familiar with Richmond, California’s Iamsu!, even if you don't realize it. If you haven't already caught wind of his Million Dollar Afro project with Compton's Problem or didn’t listen to his critically-acclaimed solo tapes Kilt and $uzy 6 $peed (Note: a male rapper calling himself Suzy is something we can definitely get behind), you'll have at least raised a cup or swiveled a desk chair to his productions and features for Wiz Khalifa, 50 Cent, and E-40. With every release Su manages to make his looseness feel like a drum-tight asset, and his melodies are improving and multiplying exponentially, at once making hearts smile and hairs stand on their ends. He can do incredible stadium rap, too. And if all that weren't enough, the release of Kilt 2 later this year will see the man born Sudan Williams elevate to being the young rapper of the moment. —DBS
Issue is E-40’s youngest son, but that’s not why you should care about him. Aside from the occasional collaboration with older brother Droop-E, his music bears no resemblance to his father’s notorious Bay slappers. A shy high school student with an affinity for Daft Punk album deep cuts, foreign sports cars, and Arizona iced tea, his charm lies in his penchant for uninhibited self-expression, however kooky the end product may be. In the span of one song, Issue might slip into multiple personas and have a conversation with himself, or he’ll break into some off-key melody that’s somehow totally genius. The recent Greedhead signee hides his face behind a wrestling mask, but unveils his soul on every track. When I interviewed him a few months ago, he told me his spirit animal was a Unicorn because he’s destined to become a legend. Seems about right. —FC
You can totally consider yourselves forgiven for feeling blindsided by the recent wave of acclaim surrounding Baton Rouge's Kevin Gates, the world's current greatest rapper and premier human being. Very few opinion formers not named Jeff Weiss had been covering Gates outside of Louisiana, where he's basking in Boosie levels of deification after potential nationwide radio hit ”Satellites” (mercifully now getting an official video and rerelease), capped off four years of solid groundwork that included a song with the God himself. He proceeded to steal the show on Pusha T's latest just days before February's staggering album-in-mixtape's clothing The Luca Brasi Story—his most mature, considered release to date—clinched it, hitting the wider rap consciousness and drawing comparisons to soon-to-be peers Future and Drake for his impassioned rapping style and real man melodies. I’ll go even further and say his tough yet tender anthems are so damn sticky and affecting they sit in a league of their own; causing the chest to pump, tears to jerk, gooses to bump and leaving us in no doubt that Gates is about to scale the highest of altitudes. —DBS
Miami’s Metro Zu aren’t so much a rap group as they are a phenomenon laying in wait, infecting culture starting with the furthest reaches of the Internet. The weirdo crew consists of producer Poshstronaut, visual artist Freebase, rapper Ruben Slikk and his singing brother Lofty305, but they each do a little of everything. Metro Zu is alien pimp rap on ecstasy; art therapy on angel dust; an X-rated Nickelodeon cartoon from the future. They do things like paint Lamborghinis at art shows and say things like “Jizz Boss.” In originality and sheer output they’re killing the game; there is literally NEVER a day when a member doesn’t release a new track or tape. Their biggest hit is the absurd, bombastic “Sell Ma Hoe,” but I urge you to explore their endless goldmine of music. There’s something there for everyone. —FC
While not technically Jerkin artists, Inglewood's Pink Dollaz first surfaced during that 2009 wave as a five-piece, flaunting gorgeously imperfect 96kbps anthems “Lapdance” and ”I'm Tasty” before dropping the super rare Pink Dollaz Mixtape Vol. 1. One of the few acts from that period with the stamina to stick with it, Nilla, Cammy B, Cee Cee and Reese (now a foursome) teamed up with Iggy Azalea and Ty$ production outfit D.R.U.G.S. for last year's Pink D.R.U.G.$, a stunning run of tropical ratchet anthems that clocked in at a reassuringly raw 128kbps. Now they're that one crucial single away from getting put on New Boyz-style, except this time on their own terms. It's not just that Pink Dollaz are one of the most viable girl groups on the horizon, it’s just that they're genuinely one of the most exciting young bands in America. —DBS
ST 2 LETTAZ
Thanks to Slow Motion Soundz' in-house production powerhouses Block Beattaz, Huntsville, Alabama duo G-Side circumvented whatever was going on in rap during their much-lauded four-year run, almost grasping upper echelon indie success via their humble, lush, and dignified take on Southern rap and some perfectly judged Tame Impala, Beach House, and Enya samples. Always the more industrious half of the duo, ST 2 Lettaz’s fluid, uplifting rapping and impressively wholehearted live performance has in recent months helped ease the crushing blow of the G-Side breakup. Thought ST has admitted he came to rely on Clova as a crutch, his newfound liberty sounds more than promising—his debut full-length The G… The Growth & Development unveils this champion of the working class's solo pedigree over some seriously sumptuous productions. And with any luck, but most likely his hard work, determination, and ear for amazing beats, he'll be spoken of in the same breath as similarly uncompromising, big-hearted, and menacing rappers such as Freddie Gibbs in the not too distant future. —DBS
Harlem’s Tim Vocals might indeed be an R&B singer, but his velvety verses chronicle some of the realest shit out there. On last year’s Live From Harlem, he borrowed hit instrumentals from guys like Drake and Ne-Yo and threw down thug confessions with the voice of an angel. On “Bags of the Sour,” Vocals transformed the self-pitying “Marvin’s Room” into an equally touching ballad about putting his ex’s new man in the ground; Ne-Yo's“Sexy Love” became “Bust My Guns,” an ode to heaters that you can undress your girlfriend to. He’s the epitome of a sensitive thug, as evidenced by this note he left fans before turning himself in to the cops in late February. The good news is he’s got an EP of original material coming soon, so look out world. —FC
Might as well get this out of the way: Tink is impossibly young. The 17 year-old singer/rapper released one of the most quietly stunning mixtapes of 2012 in Winter’s Diary, the Chicago native occupying lush soul arrangements with effortless style and maturity beyond her years, only to find herself equally at home on the mechanical, Drill-inflected Alter Ego tape, released shortly after Winter’s Diary. And that’s what’s so great about Tink, really: she’s a better singer and rapper than anyone you can throw at her, and (again) she is impossibly young. With her newest release Blunts & Ballads, she's even further perfecting her ability to conflate these styles, and once the world takes notice, she's going to be a serious problem. —DM
Chicago's Tree has been rapping and producing since Chief Keef was about five years old. Blessed with a soulful ear and commanding, raspy voice, Tree combines superior sample-based beats with artful storytelling and fierce hooks to make music he calls Soul Trap. He's the slow and steady tortoise to Keef's hare; he showed up on The Source's Unsigned Hype list back in 2007 and drew major blog buzz with last year's solid Sunday School mixtape. His raps are often urgent and frenzied, but the supremely confident MC has been patiently waiting for his turn to shine. He’s currently perfecting his Sunday School II project, and if the lead single “Get It” is any indication, he’s going to murder 2013.
One of the absolute greatest things about Ty Dolla $ign is the conviction with which he sings so daintily about such diverse subjects as cold-heartedly stealing your girl, how many boppers fit in his cabana and (essentially) date rape. The songwriter behind fellow Pushaz Ink member YG's massive “Toot It and Boot It” set himself dreads and shoulders above the increasingly crowded Los Angeles rap scene when he unleashed the sonically ridiculous Beach House mixtape, singing butterfly-pretty irreverence over spacious D.R.U.G.S., Fuego, and Cardo productions, "Snarling and seducing all at once," as New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica put it. Astutely front-loading his breakout mixtape with five pretty much perfect Rap & Bullshit anthems, TY$ consistently endeared himself to anyone listening. If all goes well, his upcoming Atlantic debut Free TC should see him assuming his rightful role as the next party rapper with extreme pop potential (think Wiz Khalifa, but better) when it drops later this year. —DBS
You cannot get more “Started from the Bottom” than Tyga. I know it’s a Drake song, but Tyga is quite literally the definition of that phrase. Dude started out as Young Money’s answer to the cultural non-force that was Shwayze, and no amount of Lil Wayne cosigns could make us forget that he was related to Travis McCoy of Gym Class Heroes. But at some point, a funny thing happened to Tyga. He went to Rack City, and he motherfucking thrived there. What actually happened is he linked up with Chris Brown when nobody would touch him with a ten-foot pole and the result was a pretty good mixtape (Fan of a Fan), and more importantly the Brown/Tyga/Kevin McCall single “Deuces.” And while Chris Brown is still a terrible person, he also gave Tyga enough heat for people to care about “Rack City,” which ended up being one of the mightiest singles of 2012 and helped us all pay attention to the wondrous DJ Mustard. There was a lot of halfassed Drake-lite horseshit on his second effort Careless World: Rise of the Last King, but it also contained some pretty incredible singles ("Faded," and “Make It Nasty,” anyone?). It might be because of DJ Mustard’s newfound and extremely well-deserved ubiquity or perhaps the fact that that the porno that Tyga recently directed was nominated for three AVN Awards, but I've got a feeling that 2013 is going to be Tyga’s year. His new single “Dope” follows the “Spaced-Out Banger” model of “Rack City,” and also his upcoming Hotel California has an actual tiger Photoshopped onto its cover, so that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s probably going to be a classic. —DM
Young Thug is one of about 3,000 rappers to get a leg up from rapping with Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka. The difference between Thug and most of them is that Young Thug is really, really interesting—non search engine optimized name excluded. He’s a trapper very much in the mold of Gucci Mane, but with a pretty major twist—his style is simple, almost Based, and his voice sounds like he sucked on a bunch of helium right before he hopped into the booth and it seems like he’s competing with himself to yell louder than he did on the last bar. I know all of this sounds messy, but it works amazingly. Young Thug’s been in the rap game since at least 2011, when he dropped his [I Came From Nothing](http://indy.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/13985/youngthugicamefrom_nothing.html ) mixtape. Then he, like so many others in Atlanta, aligned himself with Bricksquad and started stealing the spotlight whenever he appeared on a Waka or Gucci song, seemingly knocking both rappers out of their all-too-standard complacency in the process. His latest offering is _1017 Thug,_ which is as weird and wonderful as anything Young Thug has done so far: one of the standout tracks is “Picacho” in which Thug compares his chain to Pikachu, then pronounces Pikachu in various pitches, sounding like the most musically talented and offbeat oddball imaginable. And somehow, the song still GOES HARD. Of the cadre of boring weed carriers that Gucci and Waka have surrounded themselves with (RIP the glorious Waka/Gucci union, though) Young Thug is the real deal. —Martin Spasov
Davey Boy Smith helps run Southern Hospitality and maintains a robust Twitter presence - @Davey_Boy_Smith
Frances Capell blogs at Real Gold Plated and is on Twitter - @ffffrances
Meaghan Garvey is an artist and writer living in Chicago. She's on Twitter - @moneyworth
Martin Spasov is from Atlanta and his favorite rapper is Riff Raff. He, too, is on Twitter - @RealMarvon
Drew Millard edits at Noisey and is an Internet enthusiast. He tweets - @drewmillard