Amidst the existential dread that characterized much of 2017, there was always incredible music to turn to in times of darkness. A handful of veteran favorites turned in their most critically acclaimed efforts in years, from Kendrick to JAY-Z to Big K.R.I.T. to Tyler, The Creator.
Even more exciting than great projects from established names, though, were 2017's breakout stars. Names that the masses either weren't familiar with last year or who exploded to plateaus we might not have thought possible have given us the comfort of knowing that 2018 will be a welcome treat so long as their voices are soundtracking our lives.
Narrowing down a sizable list of artists to just 10 wasn't easy considering all of the new talent on display over the past 11-plus months, but the following names stood out above all the rest this year as the best new artists to carry hip-hop and R&B into a new generation for years to come.
Entering 2017, only a handful of SoundCloud scavengers and bloggers passionate about voices in the R&B "underground" knew of Brent Faiyaz. As the curtain slowly closes on the current calendar year and we enter 2018, it’s astounding how much his status has changed. Brent is now known from the internet's underground to the mainstream, his voice having conquered radio and garnered a GRAMMY nomination. The Into EP as Sonder, his Sonder Son debut album, and what should be regarded as the most infectious hook of 2017 in GoldLink's "Crew"—talk about a 12-month winning streak. With no major co-signs or major label backing, Brent has manifested miracles out of hard work. His business self-funded two tours, two projects, and a work retreat to the Dominican Republic―such an operation must not be lightly noted. Your life can change in a year, Brent Faiyaz is the new poster child. —Yoh
In 2017, BROCKHAMPTON cemented themselves as the most exciting group in hip-hop (if it’s even possible to pin them down to a single genre) while completely redefining what it means to be a “boy band.” True to the title of their series, the 10-strong crew saturated the summer with brilliant back-to-back projects, SATURATION and SATURATION II, which were created under one roof during a months-long musical hot streak. Balancing creative and concise promotion with catchy songs and compelling vulnerability in their music, BROCKHAMPTON toured the continent, got their own TV show on VICELAND (via frontman Kevin Abstract) and added the likes of Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Jaden Smith to their growing family of fans. Even if SATURATION III (out December 15) really is their “last studio album” as an All-American Boy Band, some of 2017’s brightest moments were smeared with BROCKHAMPTON’s blue-painted fingerprints. —Andy
How many artists have posed for the cover of Rolling Stone without having ever released an album? How many have ruled over Billboard—the first female rapper to hit No. 1 with a solo effort in nearly 20 years—without a big name guest feature or Drake bringing his board to wave ride? Every award and accolade Cardi B has earned in 2017 further proved that we were witnessing an anomaly unfold. “Bodak Yellow” proved she had the touch of Midas and the massive hysteria surrounding her is a magnetism fit for Aphrodite. If Cardi was a goddess in a Greek fable the world would bow at her feet. Instead, she has to settle for the modernized version of hero worship: social media stanning and full support of any and everything that bears her name. Cardi's last 11 months have been like watching a rookie go from college basketball bench to NBA finals MVP in their first year. —Yoh
Like R&B’s answer to CJ McCollum, Daniel Caesar spent a couple years as a promising, under-the-radar talent (he dropped two EPs between 2014 and 2015) before quietly hunkering down in the off-season and bursting into life. On his debut album Freudian, the 22-year-old Canadian crooner channeled “the most intense relationship of [his] life” into the purest love album of the year, radiating with intimate, stripped-down soul music that cuts through the wave of woozy R&B currently flooding across the border. One of several success stories to be spotlighted in Apple Music’s “Up Next” series, Daniel saw his Kali Uchis duet “Get You” go Gold and performed a brand new collaboration with Chance The Rapper live on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. So long as the heart continues to burst with love and break with loss, Daniel Caesar and his stunning voice are here to stay. —Andy
After building a buzz with his Empty Bank mixtape last year, Jay IDK entered Summer ’17 with a new name (IDK) and a new look (bleached hair, word to Frank and Kanye). On the surface, it was a savvy reinvention. But in reality, Jason Mills was reintroducing us to the real him. On his self-described “soundtrack,” IWASVERYBAD, the Maryland rapper turned his tumultuous life story—that of a middle class, college-bound kid led astray by the allure of street life, all the way to a jail cell—into one of the very best albums of the year. Not even MF DOOM, Chief Keef or Swizz Beatz could outshine his cinematic and self-reflective storytelling. Add to that an inventive album roll-out through Adult Swim, a budding relationship with Mike Dean and a European tour with Joey Bada$$, IDK is further proof that realness reigns supreme. —Andy
Imagine intimate rooms of breathless bodies reciting intricate, wordy rhymes with faces full of joy. That’s every night on the road for J.I.D. When he performs “NEVER,” the single from his breakout Dreamville debut, The Never Story, venues packed to capacity follow every word. It’s magical—the song isn’t simple, but there’s a rush in the act of keeping up with the wordsmith as he leads the infectious chant. The Never Story in its entirety is a joyride of fiery lyricism and raw storytelling. It’s an enjoyable listen, the music is dynamite, but watching the Atlanta-born artist perform is a completely different explosion. The road is where internet fans become real-life believers, and the fandom has grown tremendously. The reason is quite simple: the music will show you a man of talent and skill, but on stage, in the flesh, you see a man ready for stardom. Cole didn’t just sign a microphone monster, but a star in the making. His appearance in the BET cypher this year won't be the last time you see J.I.D on television. —Yoh
Khalid enjoyed the most astonishing rise of any artist this year. In the span of 18 months, the El Paso, TX teen went from a high school senior with a handful of songs on SoundCloud to a Platinum-selling pop star with five GRAMMY nominations to his name. It’s because of, not in spite of, his tender age that made Khalid such a sensation in 2017, scoring such relevant and refreshing hits like “Location” and “Young, Dumb & Broke,” melancholy love anthems for the social media generation. Having been crowned Best New Artist at this year’s MTV VMAs, and with a good chance of claiming the same award at the GRAMMYs next month, Khalid will be remembered as the valedictorian of American teen life in 2017. —Andy
“Being a black man in America feels like you’re on damn Jupiter sometimes,” Smino toldPigeons & Planes in 2015 while talking about his blkjuptr EP. The atmosphere around him has hardly improved, but the St. Louis rapper has since zeroed in on his innate qualities—both as a black man and an artist: “blkswn is going from feeling alienated on blkjuptr to like becoming this muhfuckin’ black swan and being comfortable in that shit,” he toldRolling Stone of his excellent debut album. With infectiously silky flows and syrupy crooning, the St. Louis rapper certainly stands out from the herd—just ask SZA and T-Pain, who took him on tour and jumped on his “Anita” remix, respectively. Black swan was a prophetic metaphor for how Smino took flight with rarified beauty this year. —Andy
Popularity surrounding SZA predates the release of her debut album, Ctrl. Some will say her following began before her 2013 signing to TDE, and the fans who have been around since See.SZA.Run and S will proudly proclaim their status as day-ones. SZA was never "underground," but she was in a bubble, one that hovered below mainstream consciousness. In 2017, that bubble burst and the world finally saw what longtime fans had known. Universal acclaim, five GRAMMY nominations, Platinum singles ("Love Galore" and "The Weekend"), late-night performances—Ctrl took SZA from cult following to full-blown superstar, and now the entire globe rests in the palm of her hands. —Yoh
Freedom is what 6LACK wanted. A desire so deeply synonymous with his soul and artistry that he named and themed his debut album after the undying pursuit. In the year after its release, 6LACK is no longer a captive of the industry, but a free bird who has continued to soar. He stayed on the road, touring nonstop and singing mood-inducing songs that won his way into the hearts of millions. 6LACK spent more time on stage than Twitter or Instagram, he entered fatherhood, he destroyed a few feature appearances, and he cut his hair to give the people even more to talk about. Instead of staying in the dark, color brought the Atlanta songbird into the light. Even the way he handled the mispronunciation of his name was done with humor and ingenious marketing. He isn’t wasting music or a move—he recently re-released his debut to a much larger fanbase. 6LACK is making the most of his freedom. —Yoh