Montreal’s known more for its solitudes than scenes, but that doesn’t mean the city is a bilingual bucket full of fighting crabs. Variety is the spice of life, and it’s also the special sauce that goes on Montreal rap’s steamé hot dog. To an outsider, the lack of interlocking parts may look like a lack of cohesion. To locals, that’s how things have always been, and while there’s no trademark sound to use as a springboard, there’s a conviviality below the surface to match the outward competitiveness.
Rappers in the city have long said they’re next or something to that effect, and it’s a fool’s errand to wait around for rising tides. Montreal’s best artists are taking matters into their own hands and worrying more about honing their crafts than seeking clout or riding a wave. As the city actually inches towards producing bona fide stars, the city’s emcees have arguably never cared less. It’s a liberating feeling, and it’s opening up the creative dams. The quantity and quality has never been better.
Forget who’s on the cusp, here’s a mere sampling of who’s popping in the 514-450-438 right now.
Has anyone from the city ever blown up as quickly as the 20-year-old rapper? From the opening slowed-down spin by producer Yama//Sato on “Ting Tun Up,” Skiifall has been on an unstoppable upward trajectory. The Saint Vincent native and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce resident channels his grandmother with his Vincentian flow, which has taken the UK by storm, getting props from Benji B and NTS, among others. That’s not all: he’s also been in a Virgil Abloh campaign for Louis Vuitton and the NBA. Not bad considering he dropped “Ting Tun Up”—made partially in Côte-des-Neiges community studio NBS—just last November. He followed it up with “Bentayga Dust” in May, SoundCloud cut “Feds Fraid We” in July, and the three-track Woiiyoie Tapes Vol. 1 this August. Amid fanfare among those in the know, Skiifall finally got to play a coronation gig in his hometown in August, at Mural Fest.
Flex: “Me nuh rep no 6azz ting but me bag two slims from Jane and Finch” from “Ting Tun Up”
Although the 2020 Polaris Music Prize winner sometimes gets passed over as a pure MC given her fully fledged experimental goth sound, there’s no denying BACKXWASH’s ferocious skills on the mic, her place as one of Montreal’s most gifted artists or her insatiable consumption of all things rap (as demonstrated on her socials). With winning entry God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It removed from streaming for sample reasons, the Zambian-Canadian didn’t wait long to fill the void, dropping equally punishing I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses this June. With either release, what you see is what you get: brutally honest lyrics, dark themes, palpable pain, religious iconography, exegesis, and a relentless delivery that leaves you coming up for air. With creative partner Merchant Vaporwave, Backxwash has fashioned a sound and aesthetic unlike anything in the country.
Lyric: “Back to back I’m back in black, it’s fuck the world cause I hate that/I should have me snatched or grab a gat is up the nose and do it ASAP” on “In Thy Holy Name”
How did a quirky self-aware Saint-Léonard meme-ster evolve into the unflappable “Jeune Finisseur”? By having a distinctive lane and sticking to it. From his smoke-filled gaming room, the oddball with the Midas touch can’t help put his humorous spin on rap clichés in-between Twitch streams. His incomparably jovial flow on tape Free CDF 2 has caught on across the pond in French-speaking Europe, and in 2020 his one-off single “Kung Fu Margiela 2” got an unexpected shout out from NPR. He recently paired up with preferred producer Freakey! (who co-produced Don Toliver’s “Can’t Feel My Legs”) and Shreez on the joyfully chaotic “Percer,” which finds Rowjay in pugnacious form. He’s now followed it up with his most comprehensive statement yet, Carnaval de Finesse 2 : Les Chroniques d’un Jeune Entrepreneur.
Flex: “Vrai jeune entrepreneur, mais fuck les fascists/Vrai blanc tu connais, pour mes frères nique un blanc suprémaciste” (A young entrepreneur, but fuck the fascists/I’m white but for my brothers I’ll fuck up a white supremacist”) from “Astral Drill”
It arguably took a work trip to Toronto and partnering with Grammy Award-winning Adrian X to find her place as one of Montreal’s most assured voices and potential crossover stars. That’s how Godspeed: Elevated came to be, a confident tribute to Black excellence and a follow-up to 2020’s Godspeed: Baptism (Prelude) that crosses city lines with ease. Her enlightening, invigorating time abroad comes into play on “Toronto’s Gold,” but she still has time to take it home on “102 Bus It,” dedicated to the ride that snakes through her neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grace. Naya Ali was the first English rapper to garner an ADISQ nomination in her home province, and was also the lone anglo contribution on one of the best bilingual posse cuts in recent history, “G.O.A.T. Talk (Remix)” with Benny Adam and White-B.
Flex: “Minus forty weather, I ain’t playing no/This the holy weather for the braids though” on “Another One”
A rap neophyte when she dropped debut tape SLM: The Complete Flex Season last December—she’d only been at it seriously for a year—Shailah Leann Morris showed no rookie nerves swinging out the gate on the hook-less “Pony” and unapologetic “Boss Bitch Anthem.” SLM (pronounced Slim) took another step forward months later on Real Talk Radio, solidifying her place as one of the city’s brashest wordsmiths with a penchant for enthusiastically laying waste to the opposition. SLM clearly has her eyes on the money, and the swagger rarely subsides, although she does take something of a breather on the languid jam “Heavy.” She just completed her first collaborative merch drop with local brand Grimey.
Flex: “They wonder when she gon stop, they wonder when she gon slip/I wonder when these muthafuckas gonna hop off my dick” on “Just Like That”
As charismatic as they come in the city, the St-Catherine Street original grabbed an unlikely piece of immortality when his “Iced Out Baby-G” became the victory song for YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul. The Adult Supervision single is not only a great track to bump from a speaker perched on your shoulder, it’s also the perfect introduction to Nate Husser’s croaking, breathless flow. He raps with fancy footwork, tightly packing bars and always ready to fire another salvo at his doubters. Originally a member of Posterz with Kris the Spirit, the pair both found themselves on local clothing brand Grimey’s 4-20 festivities. Husser even did the impossible and got the cops and pals to play a friendly game of dodgeball at a recent Little Burgundy charity basketball game.
Flex: “White people always think they know what’s best for me/I didn’t know you were making my cheques for me” from “Iced Out Baby-G”
One of three celeb judges on television channel Télé-Québec’s rap battle competition show La Fin des Faibles (The End of the Weak), the Senegalese-Canadian rapper has vaulted her way to the top of the province’s hip-hop pecking order, gracing not only television but magazine covers. As a result, Sarahmée’s latest album Poupée russe (Russian Doll) came with a lot of external hype, and she delivered on her promise, matching refined technique with global, radio-friendly beats. And just to prove a point, Sarahmée went dexterous on the appropriately titled “Superflex” as a sign that she’ll continue to keep one foot in the mainstream and one in the rap game. She also scored a Juno Award nom with the video for “Bun Dem” in 2020.
Flex: “Rappeuse, DJ, mannequin, j’ai plus de temps mort” (“Rapper, DJ, model, I have no more down time”) on “Superflex”
Introduced to many in the province for his affiliation with Canicule Records and his verse on Tizzo’s groundswell 2018 breakthrough “On fouette,” the Lavallois and all-time ad-libber has made major strides solo, building into a capable, confident front man on 2020 album On Frap. He just won the SOCAN Award in the francophone Hip-Hop/Rap Music category, which puts him in some pretty illustrious company as far as local rappers go. An in-demand collaborator in addition to the aforementioned “Percer” with Rowjay, Shreez is keeping busy: he put his incomparable “ça pue” musk on White-B’s hit album Double Vision, Romeo Don’t Die’s “Accessible” and the High Klassified-produced “Victory Lap” with Muzion member Imposs in 2021.
Flex: “Haïtien d’origine, normal que je parais avec nuff spice” (“Haitian of origin, normal that I’d come with enough spice”) on “Victory Lap”
Gang violence this summer claimed the lives of local rappers Jeune Loup and Soso Burgz, leaving a community in mourning and opening the door for law enforcement to criminalize an entire genre of music. Not long after Laval’s hip-hop festival LVL Up getting pre-emptively shut down by police, Montréal-Nord, Pointe-aux-Trembles, and Rivière-des-Prairies resident Raccoon (f.k.a. Raccoon City) did what rappers do best: chronicle real life in the moment, without compromise. The WordUP! battle vet hit hard with “Shoot,” a song that gets right to the heart of the fears of young Black men in Montreal and the threat of gang violence. Already an emerging talent thanks to 2020’s Le Set Up and his appearance on La Fin des Faibles, with “Shoot” Raccoon has assumed a new role as one of the city’s most effective, honest lyricists.
Flex: “Tout le monde a une arme/Personne est dans l’armée” (“Everyone’s got a weapon, but no one is in the army”) from “Shoot”
A West Island suburbanite via Rivière-des-Prairies who’s as unpredictable as he is ubiquitous. The further his music gets away from the mainstream, the more the jack-of-all-trades seems to pop up, whether it’s playing virtually every Quebec music festival this summer with a full jazz band, dropping a freestyle in a REM light rail train, or appearing on label releases like Sarahmée’s Poupée russe. He dropped sprawling Haitian flag-clad double tape On Est Là! in 2020, one that by his admission wasn’t fully mastered (“I’m such a virgo,” he said) but doesn’t lack in freeform goodness and unbridled creativity. In a city where nearly everyone’s a little bilingual, Maky Lavender hops between English and French effortlessly, which probably explains why he can show up everywhere and feel at ease. He’s also capable when it comes to being self-deprecating (he has an album named ...At Least My Mom Loves Me), braggadocious (“When Did Maky Get This Hot”), and serious (“Bloom”). As prolific as any Montreal rapper, expect him to keep making moves.
Flex: “I got a diploma, only paper I don’t give a fuck about” on “West Island Freestyle”
If brevity is the soul of wit, smooth operator Chung’s calmly lean rhymes are downright cutting. Straight to the point with poise and coolness, the Lasalle rapper embodies a more classic style compared to some of her peers, and it’s not just the timeless soul and AM gold productions from collaborator Cotola on the Chung Shui EP, which dropped in October. There’s a totality to her approach beyond lyrics, although she’s got barbs that stick with you: she’s looking at complete songs from top to bottom, where the hooks mesh and her words are simpatico with the beats. Chung Shui is a thoughtful release that benefits from the refined approach.
Flex: “I’m on a different speed, when I hop on a beat/What is new? All I do is succeed” on “Back and I’m Bad”
Formerly on Bonsound rap and electronic sub-label Make It Rain, Lasalle rapper Tyleen has joined the ranks of nascent New Regime records as their inaugural act. On 2020’s Fanta$y, Montreal rap fans got a taste of Tyleen Johnson’s unmatched bravado in more of a party atmosphere, but the pandemic year allowed her to crystallize her flow while simultaneously stretching her wings to cover more sonic ground. The confidence remains, and backed by an exciting new label, she’s ready to return and back up everything she says.
Flex: “I’m a pretty bitch from the projects, I ride around with them goblins” on “223”
By no means a new kid on the block, Montreal-North’s Steve Casimir was truly one of the original East Coast-style street rappers in his city in the late 1990s, with “Sur le corner” with Méchant Style going down as one of the most important early-era francophone rap jams to hit the music video airwaves. After that, Connaisseur Ticaso returned to the underground and did time in prison, but he re-emerged in 2020 on Joy Ride Records, who not only used their newfound muscle from the success of Loud to give a second act to the Original Chilleur, but also Muzion’s Imposs. Ticaso didn’t even bother to read up on trends in making comeback album Normal de l’est: it’s 15 tracks chronicling life in the streets delivered with unflinching honesty. His skills and perceptiveness haven’t aged a day. The success has been undeniable, as Normal de l’est won Best Rap Album at this year’s Gala ADISQ in his home province.
Flex: “Si c’est un game de onze juste pour prouver un point j’en score seize/Cette vie laisse-moi te l’illustrer j’merite l’Oscar comme Scorsese” (If it’s a game to eleven just to prove a point I’ll score 16/This life let’s me illustrate I deserve an Oscar like Scorsese)