Slick mainstream rap has always found its raw analog in the underground. But in a time when over-the-top melodrama (Drake) and conceptual narratives (Kendrick Lamar) dominate the airwaves, where even recent pioneers like Young Thug have smoothed out any rough edges, perhaps it's no surprise that the new vanguard of rappers have once again upped the ante, offering new sounds, new flows, new moods, new everything.
Many of the rappers listed here favor energy over intricacy, viscerality over logic and flow over lyricism. They are descendants of Chief Keef, Lil Wayne and Lil B, preferring not canonized albums like "The Blueprint" but anomalies like "808s & Heartbreak." Even rap's perpetual claims to authenticity present themselves here in hybrid forms, as influenced by the collective power of Raider Klan and Sad Boys as early-00s emo and obscure 1990s mixtapes.
A bulk of the most visible of these young artists are unfortunately labeled "SoundCloud rappers." While there is truth to this description — many use the streaming technology to reach their audience — it's also true that they still benefit from their location, with cities like Chicago, Atlanta and especially Miami playing crucial roles (This is why the city in which these artists first made their impact is most often listed here, rather than the city they were born in or have since moved to).
But however they're labeled — SoundCloud rap, emo-trap, mumble rap — one thing's for sure: These rappers are forging new paths, once again pushing the boundaries of what rap is, who it's for and how it's distributed. In an era that values SoundCloud play counts, social media communication and the primacy of viral memes, there's nothing stopping the blazing forward-momentum of these 21 rappers under 21.
Why he's important: Playboi Carti's eponymous debut sideswiped the rap world this year with its woozy disposition, laying the foundation for a delirious, loose and hypnotic delivery that's already generating imitators. Lil Uzi Vert said it is "the best goddamnn album" he has ever heard.
Essential listening: "Magnolia," a quintessential Pi'erre Bourne production that offered a minimal backdrop for a quintessential Carti performance.
YoungBoy Never Broke Again
City: Baton Rouge, LA
Why he's important: YoungBoy Never Broke Again (formerly known as NBA YoungBoy) tempers the simple hedonism of many of his contemporaries with a candid realism. He just released a mixtape, "AI YoungBoy," but he has already announced two more for the near future and has reportedly inked a major label deal.
Essential listening: While "AI YoungBoy" is the mixtape you wanna grab, "41" might be a better example of where this young star's headed, boasting cameos from the likes of Young Thug, Boosie Badazz, Yo Gotti and 21 Savage.
Why she's important: CupcakKe backs some of the raunchiest lyrics out there with her exuberant personality and highly stylized aesthetic, exemplified best on the towering "Queen Elizabitch" mixtape.
Essential listening: "Lipgloss," a bubbly banger by Charli XCX (and produced by A. G. Cook, SOPHIE and Life Sim) that shows CupcakKe at her most ferocious, even while in pop mode.
Why he's important: Lil Yachty is a household name now, a bona fide brand built up and leveraged to great success through his beaming positivity and cherry-red style. He's worked with everyone from Young Thug to Kanye West, but he remains intimately linked with the young guns blazing new paths alongside him.
Essential listening: While "Teenage Emotions" is his studio debut, his most essential release is his debut mixtape "Lil Boat," which introduced us to his peculiar mumbles and acrobatic, auto-tuned melodies and threw the rap community into a frenzy through sheer positivity.
City: Evanston, IL
Why he's important: Kweku Collins might be young, but he has the vision and scope of a seasoned veteran. His latest release, the surprisingly expansive "Grey" EP, finds the "bohemian rapper" at his most mature and reflective. It's a free digital release, but it sounds like a dispatch from the majors.
Essential listening: "Grey," an exquisite and thoroughly well-produced EP that outlines a precocious artist wise beyond his years.
Why he's important: Lil Pump's only 16, but he and Smokepurpp (together as Gucci Gang) already landed a profile in The New York Times and his raw SoundCloud uploads rack up millions of streams, some coming up on an astonishing 30 million. He even created a meme.
Why she's important: Ravyn Lenae, a collaborator with everyone from Mick Jenkins to Noname, has far and away the most blissful voice on the list with a seductive, all-enveloping aesthetic, nestled somewhere between Erykah Badu's minimalist soul and Kelela's experimentalism.
Essential listening: "Genesis," the intro track to her second EP, "Midnight Moonlight," is a prime example of her unique melodic sensibility and stunningly in-command delivery.
City: Arlington, TX
Why he's important: Ever since Tay-K dropped his viral hit "The Race" his status has blown up to mythological proportions, catching the attention of everyone from Lil Yachty to Travis Scott. His brief yet downright scorching debut mixtape has prompted Kodak Black to consider signing the now-incarcerated rapper.
Essential listening: "The Race," which was written while on the lam and had its video released the day Tay-K was finally caught. Either he'll make it through like Kodak Black or suffer the same fate as Bobby Shmurda.
City: Los Angeles
Why he's important: With angsty, depressive lyrics and a rudimentary flow, Lil Peep is one of the most divisive rappers out there. But Peep is also among the leading figures of the so-called emo-trap movement (he's a member of GothBoiClique), with songs that sample artists ranging from Radiohead and My Chemical Romance to Slayer and Gucci Mane.
Essential listening: "Benz Truck," a dour number from his recently released debut "Come Over When You're Sober," which places Peep's seemingly half-interested flow atop prototypical emo strums that make genre-pigeonholing impossible without dashes and footnotes.
Why she's important: Kodie Shane is quickly becoming the most visible Sailing Team member (next to Yachty, of course), playing live shows with the likes of Gucci Mane, Lil Wayne, YoungBoy and more. Her latest drop is an EP called "Back From The Future" and it goes as hard as you'd expect.
Essential listening: "Hold Up (Dough Up)," a DJ Spinz-produced banger featuring none other than Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty.
City: Pompano Beach, FL
Why he's important: While troubling legal issues sometimes overshadow his music, Kodak Black is still one of the most promising rappers on this list. Fun fact: His sleeper hit "No Flockin" was originally released in 2014, but penetrated the Billboard Hot 100 earlier this year and provided major inspiration for Cardi B's smash "Bodak Yellow."
Essential listening: "Tunnel Vision," a hook-heavy song off Kodak Black's studio debut, "Painting Pictures," produced by Metro Boomin, Southside and Cubeatz.
Why she's important: Easily one of the most dexterous rappers on this list, Molly Brazy spits straight fire, bouncing from West Coast-flavored instrumentals to prototypical Atlanta trap with stunning confidence.
Essential listening: "Outro," a quick-witted cut that flaunts Brazy's complex rhyme schemes and ostentatious flow.
Why he's important: Novelist is a South London-based rapper who continues to play a key role in the perpetually emerging crop of grime MCs. His collaborators include Skepta, Mumdance and Baauer.
Essential listening: "Take Time," a blazing performance by Novelist over the experimental noise of UK producer Mumdance, released way back in 2014.
Why he's important: SahBabii's been getting co-signs left and right (including Fetty Wap, Wiz Khalifa and Metro Boomin), primarily for his hit track "Pull Up Wit Ah Stick" — Young Thug recently hopped on a remix.
Essential listening: "Pull Up Wit Ah Stick," SahBabii's breakthrough track that was almost tossed out until a preview clip on Instagram went viral.
City: Canton, OH
Why he's important: Another artist with a crazy SoundCloud presence, Trippie Redd has an incredible, soaring voice that is simply unmatched. Here's an artist whose vocal talents are actually worthy of his ambitions. No one sounds like him.
Essential listening: "Love Scars," currently sitting at over 20 million streams between SoundCloud and YouTube alone.
Why he's important: Smokepurpp's got dreams of being a superstar and unlike other rising rappers from the Miami area, he's also a solid producer. With his scrappy internet smarts and marketing sensibility, we should all take notice.
Essential listening: "Audi," a visceral punch in the face, distorted and dripping with Miami nastiness.
City: Palm Beach, FL
Why he's important: While wifisfuneral is often lumped in with his fellow Floridian counterparts, the Bronx-born rapper is on a different sort of tip, repping a breathless cadence and a penchant for intricate rhyme schemes that aligns him closer to classic rap tropes.
Essential listening: "Tic Tac," an intro track featuring booming 808s, skittering hi-hats and wifisfuneral at his highest level.
City: Washington, DC
Why she's important: Ranging from Yachty-style positivity to straight-up diss tracks, Rico Nasty boasts an unprecedented range and versatility. This approach finds a parallel in her ambitions: the mixed-race rapper was born in New York, raised in Maryland and wants to be a superstar in Asia.
Essential listening: "Hey Arnold," an upbeat, care-free banger in the Sailing Team style, which is why it makes complete sense that Yachty jumped on this track (who, by the way, sounds oddly flat next to Rico's powerhouse performance).
Why he's important: Decidedly paving his own way, Adamn Killa is one of the most unique, idiosyncratic rappers on this list. He's worked with everyone from Yung Lean and Brodinski to Shlohmo and Ryan Hemsworth, with a cadence that sounds like he's about to either sleep or cry.
Essential listening: "Ten" (ft. Yung Lean) — it may not reflect exactly where he's currently at as an artist, but it's the song that put him on the map.
City: Jakarta, Indonesia
Why he's important: From XXL to Playboy, everyone seems to be talking about Rich Chigga and his fanny pack. The Chinese-Indonesian rapper is meme-ready, sure, but he's already collaborated with Keith Ape and Ghostface Killah loved one of his tracks so much that he personally requested to hop on a remix. Expect Chigga's debut soon, which will be his true litmus test.
Essential listening: "Dat $tick," Chigga's breakthrough viral hit that started it all.
Why he's important: Wintertime's delivery might be absurdly low-key, but his stature is anything but. The kid's just getting started and he's already released an EP with Lil Yachty (who else?) and got the coveted remix treatment from Erykah Badu, who had a special message for Wintertime: "u bout to blow up boi."
Essential listening: "Thru It All," a barely-there banger featuring oddball intonations and bizarro melodies to match its left-field glow.