The industry game’s always changing and hip-hop has long been the catalyst. While hit tracks can still pop from Hot 97 airplay, the main, headline-grabbing successes these days play to the viral potential of the internet, where YouTube plays and SoundCloud streams are king and queen. This is where rappers have their best chance to turn heat into fire — if the moment’s right and the timing’s good, an unknown rapper can become a sensation overnight.
But behind every success story is also the potential for rappers to extend beyond their breakout moment. Hip-hop’s ephemeral nature often leads to one-hit wonders and deflated follow-ups, but like Playboi Carti, Lil Pump and other recent breakouts before them, a handful of underground rappers are making big statements right now. From 03 Greedo and Princess Nokia to JPEGMAFIA and Jay Critch, the artists on this list are challenging assumptions about rap and defying industry expectations, prepping for a bigger stage.
Ignoring their energy and momentum would be impossible. Whether it’s musical, lyrical or something else altogether, the statements these rappers are making are not game-preserving, but potentially game-changing.
All eyes have been on 03 Greedo this year. The Watts rapper is a perfect combination of eccentricity and authenticity. His sound — dreary, Los Angeles-inflected street music — arrives with the weight of the world, best represented on this year’s breathtaking mixtape “The Wolf of Grape Street.” While Greedo’s currently facing a 20-year prison sentence, his reps assure fans that he’ll continue to release new music, which is not surprising for a highly prolific artist known for dropping marathon mixtapes and holding onto a treasure trove of many more. No matter what the setback — an artificial eardrum, a metal rod in his leg and now this upcoming incarceration — 03 Greedo is adamant about coming through on a statement inked on his face over 10 years ago, styled in large, cursive letters: “Living Legend.”
With Tay-K currently out of commission, YBN Nahmir is here to carry the torch. Like his more controversial Arlington counterpart, the Alabama native peddles raw, succinct bangers, optimized for quick consumption and maximum impact. YBN Nahmir’s big breakthrough came with last year’s “Rubbin Off The Paint,” but his latest cut shows it wasn’t a fluke: “Bounce Out With That” sees a hard Tay-K simulation draped in the influential visuals of Cole Bennett, a video already sitting at a cool 75 million views. Wiz Khalifa, Chris Brown and G Herbo are just a few collaborations coming down the pipeline, with of course his solo debut already pegged for the year. As he put it to XXL: “2018? We finna f**k it up.”
Lil Skies is on the rise, and he doesn’t need industry validation. The 19-year-old Pennsylvania rapper has exploded over the past several months, making the kind of deep, cultural dent that has resulted in millions of streams — per song. He’d, of course, be perfect for this year’s XXL’s Freshmen List — go-to video director Cole Bennett certainly has his back — but Lil Skies is so sure of himself that he turned it down for being “rigged,” claiming his spot was secured before the voting process even began. The youth these days can spot industry ploys from a mile away, and Lil Skies is clearly doing just fine without ’em.