Thanks to legends like JAY-Z, Nas, Wu-Tang, and Biggie, there's a classic golden age era sound that casual music fans associate with New York City rap. Over the past years, the impact of the internet and the celebrated diversity of NYC has wiped out any stereotypes and opened up doors for all kinds of hip-hop, ranging from hyper aggressive 6IX9INE to radio-ready Rich The Kid and emerging superstar Cardi B.
Recently, hubs like Atlanta and Florida have established themselves as a breeding ground for rap potential, but New York City is brimming with rising talent, and it's not restricted to any signature style. Here are 11 up-and-comers that showcase New York's diverse new wave of hip-hop.
At just 19 years old, Sheck Wes is already taking over. With unconventional hits like "Mo Bamba" and "Live SheckWes Die SheckWes" still spreading, Sheck brings a raw, unpredictable energy to everything he touches. He's been making music since he was 11 years old, and even though 2018 is shaping up to be his breakout year, he's got the confidence of a veteran.
Sheck Wes' music has the chaotic energy of New York City, but he manages to create something new rather than rehashing the traditional sounds of the city. Instead of rapid-fire bars and hectic production, Sheck leaves plenty of empty space in his songs, allowing his vocals and charisma to always remain the focal point.
Jay Critch is a 21-year-old Brooklyn rapper who is uniting New York rap fans. Signed to Rich The Kid's label Rich Forever, he's comfortable rapping over contemporary trap beats on ad lib heavy tracks, but he can really rap on more traditional beats, too. Name-checking both Fabolous and Future as inspirations in an interview with Fader, Critch hits the sweet spot between classic New York grit and a more melodic approach.
“Most New York rappers be on some straight lyrical shit, but they don't add no swag to it,” Critch told XXL in 2017. “It just be very lyrical and with me I'm throwing the lyrical with flow and swag.” Jay Critch hasn't released a full project yet (although he did appear on almost every track on the Rich Forever 3 mixtape), but with Rich The Kid in his corner and a New York fanbase built from the ground up, when he does it's sure to connect.
Queens rapper Deem Spencer doesn't sound like any of the artists on this list, or any other artists we can think of, to be honest. "I think weird shit is cool," Deem told us during an interview last year. "I’d rather make some shit that I’ve never heard before. I’d rather be the one who did it."
Usually rapping in a soulful tone barely above a whisper, Deem weaves introspective, melody-laden raps through production that feels handmade. His music is experimental enough to be interesting, but his ear for unforgettable flows and the way he strings words together makes it accessible enough to catch on. Deem Spencer may not be the next NYC rapper to blow up off a summer smash hit, but he's building a catalog of unique, high quality music that doesn't get played out after a couple of months, and he's going to be one of the most interesting artists to follow over the next few years.
A lot of new rappers claim rock as an inspiration, but ZillaKami is really showing it. He sounds more like Rob Zombie than Biggie, and there's more to his brutal music than just loud noises and flaming skateboards. ZillaKami is a strong songwriter, and although "catchy" might not be the appropriate word to use here, there are anthem-worthy hooks and structure that holds everything together despite what may sound like pure chaos to some on first listen. He's only got a few songs out and has been steering clear of interviews and too much attention, but don't be surprised if he turns out to be rap's next rule-breaking rockstar. He's already secured a major deal with Republic, and he's putting up big numbers despite the lack of content.
Lou The Human
Staten Island's Lou The Human came out swinging with songs like "Brink" and "Macklemore." "I wanted to make sure my first project captures teenage angst and that feeling of wanting to fuck shit up," Lou told us back in April of 2017. His debut project Humaniac expanded on the demented vision and athletic deliveries. Lou's a rapper's rapper, a refreshing alternative to the popular styles of the moment, but his most recent release "Fuck Your Opinion" might be his most promising yet. The technical agility is still there, but Lou exchanges shock value for brutal honesty and hints at a turning point for a young artist beginning to speak his truth instead of simply trying to entertain. His project Painkiller Paradise is on the way.
Hailing from Brooklyn, Jesus Honcho already has a few soaring, unorthodox melodies that suggest hit-making potential. Songs like "Infatuated" and "The Prayer" still have an unpolished presentation, but it's easy to imagine Honcho crossing over as he fine-tunes his sound. "Infatuated" has over three million plays on SoundCloud and Honcho has already shown that this contagious track isn't a fluke.
"Having a message behind my music is super important to me," Honcho tells us. "My sound is a mixture of experiences, melodic R&B as well as rap and rock. My creativity is hella limitless. I’m from NYC and I stand out because I am a person who loves to explore, and that’s how I created a sound outside my hometown."
Jesus Honcho's first EP is coming on July 17.
Princess Nokia's music by itself does a pretty thorough job of showcasing the versatility of the city's youth movement. This year's A Girl Cried Red was an emo-inflected odyssey, heavy on forlorn guitar and melodies on tracks like "Your Eyes Are Bleeding" and "Look Up Kid" that are tailor made for screaming in your bedroom (there's a reason she made our roundup of artists redefining emo). Last year's 1992 Deluxe was a broad survey of her musical tastes, ranging from the dreamy digital boom bap of "Green Line" to the bar fight-ready brolic nature of "Kitana" to the mid-2000s East Coast bounce of "Brick City." A true New Yorker, Nokia cannot and will not be boxed in, perpetually upending our expectations and expanding the outer limits of her skill set.
Leeky Bandz is from Little Italy in Manhattan, and in an interview with Nyla Simone he explained his alter ego, Lil Italy. Explaining the difference between the two, he says Leeky Bandz is more of a lyricist, and Lil Italy is more futuristic. It's his ability to do both that makes Leeky an exciting new presence in NYC hip-hop. There's a big gap between traditional lyrical rappers and rule-breaking newcomers, but Leeky Bandz brings a little of everything.
Brooklyn representative Rockstar Payso is still new to us, but over the past six months he's become a name and face that keeps popping up in New York City. After a few style switch-ups, Payso seems to have found a groove lately, and he's living up to the rockstar part of his name with rowdy performances and songs appropriate for a turn-up. Without being over-the-top aggressive and angsty, Rockstar Payso makes adrenaline-fueled music that isn't exclusively for teenage boys who want to punch each other. Expect more from Payso in the near future, but for now check out the few songs he has on SoundCloud and get familiar with a New Yorker who you'll be hearing about soon.
South Bronx rapper Maliibu Miitch recently performed at P&P's No Ceilings showcase, and from the second she walked on stage, she had the crowd's full attention. She's a commanding presence, and it comes across in songs like "Give Her Some Money" and "The Count." With Lil Kim levels of confidence and the slick delivery to match, Maliibu Miitch has an unapologetic, no-frills approach to rap that doesn't rely on gimmicks. "I think that’s what the ’90s was all about," Miitch told High Snobiety. "Everyone was just naturally being themselves. Embrace yourself."
MIKE's journey has taken him from New Jersey to England and back to Philadelphia before eventually reaching the Bronx where he went to high school. It was in England that he first got interested in rap after seeing a grime music video on TV but his sound and style has more in common with left-field rap heroes like MF DOOM and Earl Sweatshirt than anything else.
Earl has actually been a vocal supporter of MIKE, and the two have become friends, with MIKE telling Pitchfork, "He was my favorite rapper for a very long time, and I used to study his form. He influenced me so much. I’m not really a person that’s good at expressing themselves in normal situations, and people like Thebe [Earl Sweatshirt] taught me how to do that better."
MIKE has already released three albums in 2018 so far, painting vivid pictures of New York and talking openly about topics like depression, anxiety, and growing up. With a collective of rapper and producers called sLUms, MIKE is building something bigger than himself, and with a singular sound that eschews trends and fads, the 19-year-old has a bright future ahead of him.