It’s been a big, weird year for Canadian music. The likes of The Weeknd, Drake, and dvsn all dropped heat in 2020 to help get us through lockdown, while rising artists have been forced to pivot to online streaming formats in order to survive. So, where do we go from here? As we enter 2021 amid a global pandemic, which artists, trends, and genres will pop off in the north?
To find out, we asked a crack team of Canadians plugged into the music industry: Alicia West, Marketing Manager at Warner Music Group and former Flow 93.5 radio personality; Marlon Palmer, YouTuber and co-host of pop culture podcast Extra Gravy with West; Jayemkayem a.k.a. Josephine Cruz, a popular Toronto DJ, media personality, and Complex Canada contributor; and Clerel, a Cameroon-born, Montreal-based singer-songwriter who’s been buzzing up a storm.
Each of them gave us their best guesses on what to expect from CanCon next year. Read on and be sure to check out the latest episode of Extra Gravy, powered by Courvoisier, to hear Cruz, Clerel, and the hosts share more thoughts on the future of music in the Great White North.
Without further ado, here’s what Canadian music might sound like in 2021:
We will hear darker, more vulnerable music—and it will slap
Obvious statement alert: 2020 has been the absolute worst. Not only has the pandemic taken countless lives and wrecked economies, it’s upended the music industry in Canada—and everywhere else. Expect it to affect the actual music, too.
“I imagine the music will reach some new, darker and more honest depths, considering the places many of us have travelled mentally over the past few months,” suggests Clerel. “I expect some of the music will both describe what we have seen but I also hope it will uplift us and remind us that this time was worth living through.”
West agrees—she sees artists getting more contemplative coming out of this year. “If they can tap into their creativity, I think some of the new music will be extremely introspective. We’ve had months and months to know ourselves better so hopefully that is reflected in their music.”
The year’s definitely been a struggle. Still, one thing about struggle: it often makes for great art. Which means we’re in for a steady drip of bangers, says Palmer. “Artists seem to create better projects from pain. Especially with R&B’s rejuvenation over the past few years, happy love songs just don't hit like a good break up song. Even Drake has benefited from relatability to his shortcomings in regard to relationships and broken friendships. Pain is a strong catalyst for art.”
It’s Drake and Jessie’s year for the taking
We can safely say 2020 was The Weeknd’s year—despite what the Grammys think. After Hours ruled the Billboard charts, broke all the records, and topped all the year-end lists (including Complex’s). But whose year will 2021 be?
“Jessie Reyez is bound for world domination." -Marlon Palmer
Some on our panel believe it’ll be the year of The Boy, who’s got a new album dropping in early January. “Drake, Drake, and Drake,” says West. “I’ll always be team Drake! I can’t wait for Certified Lover Boy. I’m hoping for a classic!”
But watch out for the girl, too. “Jessie Reyez is bound for world domination,” declares Palmer. “She can’t be compared to anyone else right now and that originality and authenticity, matched with her raw vocal ability and amazing writing, is gonna stand the test of time. She also stands for things, which we think is important as an artist. People need to know your stance is pure and genuine and she executes that quite well.”
The Golden Age of Canadian R&B will reach new heights
It’s no secret Canada’s been altering the R&B landscape, with Drake, The Weeknd, and Justin Bieber (who definitely considers himself R&B) dominating global charts for a minute now. Don’t expect the momentum to let up.
Cruz sees this country’s megastars, and a new crop of emerging artists, continuing to drive the genre forward in 2021.
"We’ve always been super strong when it comes to R&B (I even wrote about it for Complex in 2017) but I truly think we are in the middle of an R&B Golden Era in Canada,” she says. “Not only do we have global superstars in the genre, but we also have so many bubbling artists who are right there on the edge of blowing up in a big way. TOBi, Savannah Ré, Shantel May, Loony, Jon Vinyl, and so many others—I can totally see any one of them having a big global hit in the next 12 months.”
Savanna Ré also gets a co-sign from West, who says she’s been bumping the Toronto singer’s Boi-1da-produced debut EP Opia, which dropped in November. She points to other local chanteuses on the come-up: “Idman, Amaal, Kennedy Rd, the list could go on forever. I’m rooting for Black women!”
"TOBi, Savannah Ré, Shantel May, LOONY, Jon Vinyl, and so many others—I can totally see any one of them having a big global hit in the next 12 months." -Josephine Cruz
Palmer, meanwhile, has his eyes (and ears) on Brampton-bred R&B artist Raahiem. “He dropped a song named ‘Peak’ in September of 2019 and it might be one of our favourite R&B songs in the past five years. His voice is amazing, and he just dropped an EP with production from Dvsn’s Nineteen85, so it's safe to say he’s on the industry’s radar.”
Everyone’s in agreement—Canadian R&B will reign supreme next year. So let’s treat it like what it is: one of our most valuable exports. “R&B in Canada has influenced everywhere outside of it, so we think a lot more artists from Canada will make their way to the forefront of the genre once we’re able to go out and enjoy the music,” says Palmer. “Especially when you have interest in supporting Canadian artists—like Courvoisier, who already has such a storied history when it comes to honouring community and being a brand focused on excellence—it's hard to lose.”
These Canadian beatmakers will drop some fire
From Frank Dukes to Boi-1da, Canadian producers have been constructing some of the world’s biggest hits for the better part of a decade. But who’s got next?
“Jordan Manswell,” suggests West. “He’s a young guy from Toronto who has worked with Daniel Caesar, Dvsn, Savannah Ré, Dylan Sinclair, Anders… oh and the legends Mariah Carey and Chris Brown!”
Immersed in the world of beats herself, Cruz is definitely worth hearing out on this one. “The Kount. That’s the tweet,” she says. “Been following his work for a while but it’s been so fun seeing him go viral on Twitter this year and getting props from tons of big producers, from Kenny Beats to Madlib. It’s always nice to see someone talented, who has been grinding for years, finally getting the recognition they deserve.”
Cruz says we should also watch out for FrancisGotHeat, who’s produced for Drake and Big Sean and has had a big year on Twitch, and apparently lives up to this name. “His streams are always a good time—funny, educational or just interesting.”
The Weeknd’s Grammy snub will reverberate
As we alluded to earlier, this year we saw one of the biggest Canadian artists of today—and all time—get the cold shoulder from the Recording Academy. That’s bound to have an effect on the nation’s rising talents. In fact, hear it directly from two of them:
“It’s an impactful reminder that many awards are usually given from a subjective point of view that is not always in tune with the taste of the greater public,” says Clerel of the Weeknd’s snub. “It highlights the necessity of securing alternative spaces where all kinds of creative work may be celebrated. Now that we’ve seen one of our greatest be dismissed, we know it can happen to any of us and through this realization, we can shift our values and perspectives.”
Cruz thinks the whole situation exposed institutions like the Grammys “for being mostly just smoke and mirrors and about politics above everything else.” Like Clerel, though, she still believes it’s important to “celebrate each other and recognize wins, especially in this cutthroat industry.” Maybe we’ll see an anti-Grammy awards show form, as Drake has sort of suggested himself.
Regardless, the biggest takeaway here for musicians is that they should never, under any circumstances, pander to anyone, says Cruz. “I just hope it served as proof to some up-and-coming artists that you are never going to please everyone, and you cannot be expecting anyone’s approval in this game, especially when the biggest pop star in the world is still somehow an underdog for an award he probably should have won, never mind been nominated for.”
The revolution will be live-streamed
Thanks to the pandemic, artists all over the world have pivoted to streaming live shows right from their own homes. With IRL concerts looking like a distant fantasy at this point, our insiders see the virtual format continuing to evolve in 2021—and beyond.
“Content has been king for a while and it’s even more important now that events and other in-person activities have been canceled,” says West. “Artists need to start thinking outside of the box on how they can continue to create and entertain virtually while also getting a bag or two.”
"I think Canadian music has a great chance to be heard now that the world is in a new state of appreciation for art." -Clerel
Cruz, who’s depended on live-streamed sets this year to survive, thinks even after the pandemic, the format will live on. She envisions a hybrid model where virtual concerts are offered at the same time as in-person shows, allowing everyone the option to experience live music in a way that works for them. “I really hope to see this format evolving because through my own streaming this year I’ve learned so much about the true meaning of accessibility,” she says. “Lots of venues are not accessible for people in wheelchairs or with other mobility challenges. Some small venues with not a lot of natural light or space are not pleasant places for people with social anxiety. And then there’s just the glaring issue of cost inaccessibility for a lot of people as well; some people simply can’t afford to go to concerts! I think that streaming has really made certain experiences accessible to all those people, and I’d really like to see that continue.”
And while it’s hard to think of any silver linings to our current situation, Clerel sees a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for Canadian artists.
“As with any loss, it also brings an opportunity to create the kind of conscious, fair and connected world we want to live and work in,” he says of the pandemic. “I want to be intentional about my lifestyle and choices moving forward—and align myself with other artists and entities who are doing the same. I think Canadian music has a great chance to be heard now that the world is in a new state of appreciation for art.”
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