A debut album is a mission statement. It tells us who you are, what you’re made of, and who you’re looking to become.
Fans and critics alike look to debut projects as the perfect balance of technical skill and promise, of potential and execution. These are the albums we’ll always look back on fondly, as the moments our new favorite artists found themselves in the running.
Below you’ll find our favorite debuts of 2019. Enjoy!
Ras-I’s Tsojourna album is such a beautiful project. It captures the reggae fusion sound coming out of Jamaica well, with roots, reggae, lover’s rock, hip-hop, soul, R&B, jazz, and even African influences. “Crazy Over You” was one of the most important records to come out of contemporary music before Koffee’s “Toast” came along. People need to understand what reggae out of Jamaica sounds like in the present-day, but also what it can sound like in the future. It’s super inspiring. — Ronnia Cherry
Shea Butter Baby — Ari Lennox
There’s been a lot of buzz about Ari Lennox and her disappointment in being snubbed at the Soul Train Awards and for a 2020 GRAMMY nomination. I agree with her sentiment. Fans were patiently waiting for the exact album she delivered. Shea Butter Baby was R&B perfection, thanks, in part, to its skit usage and sultry yet relatable lyrical content. Ari reminded us we all share similar experiences despite their completely different outcomes. Not only does she deserve nominations, but Ari deserves awards for this piece of work. I hope she realizes that changing lives with music is enough. — Simi Muhumuza
Baby on Baby — DaBaby
With apologies to Megan Thee Stallion, were there any other viable contenders here? It’s exceedingly rare for an artist to burst onto the scene and capture the hearts and minds of fans and critics the way DaBaby did in 2019. Exemplifying his dry sense of humor, real-world bona fides, and ear for rhyme schemes, Baby on Baby made good on every bit of the North Carolina native’s superstar potential. Even if Kirk constituted a minor step backward, DaBaby has a long and prosperous career ahead of him, and we have the triumphant urgency of this record to thank for that. — Hershal Pandya
The Lost Boy — YBN Cordae
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The Lost Boy gets better every time I listen. Cordae brings a little of everything to the table. During summer months, I couldn’t stop playing thunderous anthems “Broke as Fuck” and “Have Mercy,” while I spent much of the fall playing more soothing cuts like “Thousand Words” and “Been Around.” In 2019, the number of artists whom I can pinpoint where I was when I first heard their music is slim. YBN Cordae is on that shortlist. — Kenan Draughorne
Over It — Summer Walker
Summer Walker is the next great pop-R&B star, and Over It was her grand unveiling. Its inconsistencies are characteristic of a young artist, but Summer can do everything: she’s a gifted instrumentalist with a lush, melodic voice, and a curatorial ear. Her signature blend of R&B strings and trap drums allows her to flow expertly across songs fast and slow. She is here to soundtrack your breakups and come-ups alike, with equal parts visceral emotion and charismatic verve. The project features 18 songs. Fifteen have been saturating my playlists since my first listen. — Zachary Miller
Mirrorland — EarthGang
EarthGang’s major-label debut is a wondrous ride from start to finish. Although cliche and overwrought at this point to compare them to OutKast, there’s a Stankonian construct to the album’s grandiosity and scope that’s hard to ignore. It’s a project full of more sonic left turns and show-stopping guest features (T-Pain on “Tequila”) than almost any release this year, but the theatrics never overshadow the fact that Olu and WowGr8 are two of the best storytellers in music. Everything from The Pharcyde to Young Thug oozes out of every corner in Mirrorland. Reach through your speakers and touch the sounds on the other side. You’ll be amazed at what happens. — Matt Wilhite
A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen — Slauson Malone
“Smile at the past when I see it” is a phrase that is repeated four times across New York-via-Los Angeles producer Slauson Malone’s debut album. The saying speaks to the album’s densely sample-delic approach to mood music as deeply rooted in negro spirituals and new age jazz as it is in the lo-fi teachings of Madlib. Outside of its handful of guest appearances, it’s hard even to call A Quiet Farwell a straightforward rap record. Slauson’s beats breathe, melt, splinter, and change shape on a whim in haunting ways. Reckoning with the past has never sounded so beautiful. — Dylan "CineMasai" Green
Let The Sun Talk — MAVI
I’ve already said plenty about MAVI’s Let The Sun Talk. I’ve written, tweeted, and spoken about it. What more can I say? The album is one of captivating words, the kind of lyricism that combines and builds into a world that listeners get lost in. Let The Sun Talk takes you somewhere—a dusty, soulful place with no address, but plenty of poetry. This album reminds me of what a wise man once said: “Life is complete with the sun, the land, and the poetry.” MAVI gives you two out of three. — Yoh
Die A Legend — Polo G
Man, Polo G cuts deep. His raps about mortality are thick and delivered in equal parts breathy (“Lost Files”) and melodic tone (“Deep Wounds”). Polo G gives us a vision of Chicago we cannot ignore. He does not sensationalize. He does not pander. He does not sugarcoat. Polo G is entrenched in reality, and for every party record (“Pop Out”), there is a record cataloging the way a neglected city and systemic oppression can rob a young man of his youth (“Through Da Storm”). Die A Legend is blustery, syrupy, and serious. The record has an immeasurable heart. Die A Legend will surely go down in the contemporary Chicago rap canon. — Donna-Claire Chesman