Hip-hop is a young person's game. The shape of the genre—now as much as ever—is shaped by the young vanguard. In fact, with the advent of the SoundCloud rap generation, the potentially defining talents of the moment skew even younger than usual; lists like this may already be losing their edge. That said, with the aging out of Kendrick and Drake, both of whom turned 30 this year, the title of best rapper in their 20s is more attainable than ever with that pair out of the top two spots. Here are our picks.
Last Year's Rank: N/A
The experience of being a rap fan in 2017 is a bruising one. It's become a constant navigation of one's morality, and attempting to work out how, exactly, complicit a listener can be in an artist's misdeeds. Kodak Black stands out as the artist who made listening the most difficult this year—his hits were inescapable; his foundational talent, as heard on both projects he released this year, isn't something that's can really be argued against; and the facts of his life are all out there. Plenty are choosing to continue to listen. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Last Year’s Rank: N/A
You can’t fuck with her if you wanted to. “Bodak Yellow” was a last-minute entry in the race for song of the summer, and it took it—especially in her hometown of New York. If you haven’t been following Cardi B’s career through her Instagram or Love & Hip Hop: New York, it would appear that she came out of nowhere to deliver this smash hit. Within weeks, everyone knew the lyrics to this song and it became a must-have on every summer playlist (not to mention a breakaway success on the Billboard Hot 100.)
At this year’s Made In America festival, in Philadelphia, the Bronx-native announced her debut album is coming a little later this year. (She was also anointed by Beyonce there, so….) If “Bodak Yellow” is any indication of how the album is going to sound, she’ll be in and out them banks even more. —Alexa Shouneyia
Last Year's Rank: 15
Last summer’s SremmLife 2 might not have had the same commercial impact as volume one, but it solidified Rae Sremmurd’s position as the princes of turn-up, and it let us know that they weren't a fluke. While the album didn’t initially crash mainstream radio like its predecessor, it did give Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi an opportunity to showcase sharper bars and a sense of maturity that escaped them initially. Swae Lee, in particular, reached down into his seemingly endless well of golden hooks and came out with a winner for 2016’s No. 1 hit, “Black Beatles.” He did it yet again on “Look Alive” and “Swang,” using the singles to venture into higher vocal registers than we’d heard him attempt before—and it worked.
Swae’s success as a hookmaster can be directly attributed to his confidence and fearlessness as an artist. His charisma burns brightest when he pops up as a featured guest, like on French Montana’s inescapable hit “Unforgettable” and 2 Chainz’s dark but mesmerizing “Poor Fool.” The reason Swae slipped a few spots lower than last year? We just haven’t heard enough from him lately. Hopefully, SremmLife 3—and his solo debut, Swaecation—will be here sooner rather than later. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Last Year's Rank: 7
YG seemed almost perfectly set to take over the world when his debut album My Krazy Life came out in 2014. He was signed and mentored by Jeezy, who took him out of krazy California and brought him to Atlanta to create music. He teamed with DJ Mustard, whose minimalist sound was on its way to taking over the game. And he was releasing an album about life in Compton just about a year and a half after another, very different album about life in Compton had whet everyone’s appetite for tales of that world.
But what’s kept YG in our sights—and on this list—is the way he's managed to fulfill the promise his debut showed. He released 2016’s Still Brazy, an album without DJ Mustard, and it was still great. He put out a mixtape, and we all listened. Oh, and he actually called his tour the Fuck Donald Trump Tour—a move that, even if he hadn't done anything else, merits his inclusion here. His 2017 output has been minimal but not without bangers—“Fuck It Up,” especially. No one’s going to forget about him when he’s heating up the end-of-summer parties like that. —Shawn Setaro
Last Year’s Rank: 17
Kamaiyah’s latest single doesn’t reached the heights of anything on her debut, A Good Night In The Ghetto. However, the promise of last year's standout is still enough to hold Kamaiyah's place as an artist to watch, especially with the release of "Mo Money Mo Problems" as a late-breaking single. Her voice, commanding and seemingly incapable of not tossing out a nonchalant melody at will, is just the sort of thing you can’t help but pay attention. And, on the right beat, the G-funk classicist from the Bay is close to unbeatable. It’s a breath of fresh air, a specific point of view, and we can’t wait to hear more of it. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Last Year’s Rank: n/a
A lot has changed for 21 Savage in the past year. He released the magnetizing Savage Mode last summer, which brought out the best of both him and go-to hitmaker Metro Boomin. With Savage Mode, 21 began exploring deeper topics and strings of thought, especially on cuts like “Ocean Drive,” the production of which opened 21 up to a world of brooding self-examination that extended beyond his usual tales of gunplay and drugs. He followed that up with this year’s Issa Album; while it wasn't quite as focused as the tape before it, it did allow 21 to unlock another vault of emotions we hadn't yet been exposed to.
His blossoming relationship with Amber Rose shines through on thug-love bops like “FaceTime” and “Special,” but hard heaters like “Bad Business” and “7 Min Freestyle” remind us why we fell under the Atlanta rapper’s spell in the first place. As corny as it sounds, 21’s most powerful quality right now is his willingness to share his life with listeners. Who knows where he'll take us on his next project? —Kiana Fitzgerald
Last Year’s Rank: 13
This time last year, Mac Miller was a week or so out from releasing The Divine Feminine, and what an impressive project that was. With his heart on his sleeve, the Pittsburgh rapper changed course from his usual bravado and hit fans with a hip-hop love album that balanced sincerity with a side we hadn’t of him seen before. Guests like Kendrick Lamar, Ty Dolla Sign, and (current girlfriend) Ariana Grande also played their part, but it was Mac who pulled it all together.
It’s been a pretty barren 2017 for him music-wise; he popped up on a bonus track for the Japanese version of Thundercat’s Drunk, and joined Kendrick on a DJ Kay Slay record. Still, The Divine Feminine keeps him in the conversation until the next project drops. —Edwin Ortiz
Last Year’s Rank: 12
We already knew to expect great things from Chicago’s Noname (born Fatimah Warner) after she dropped her debut album Telefone last summer. When she took it out on the festival circuit this summer, it was incredible to watch her deliver the project live. Surely it wasn’t easy to translate such an intimate experience to a huge, open-air festival crowd.
Also on deck for 2017: a performance at ComplexCon and a solo tour of her own. If you’re looking for new music, peep her incredible verse on Joseph Chilliams’ “Kale.” True, she hasn’t put out a full-length project since last year, but the excitement around her hasn’t diminished a bit. —Alexa Shouneyia
Last Year’s Rank: N/A
From the nucleus of all successful groups, a solo talent whose abilities outpace his peers must emerge and soar on his own. Or so the outdated line of thinking goes. Migos fans, both No Label Day Ones and "Bad & Boujee" bandwagoners alike weren't wrong to tag a Yoncé to Quavo's name. With a penchant for nursery-rhyme level earworm hooks matched only by his effortlessly acrobatic 16s, his powers clearly matured the fastest of the three Migos. But the group has made a habit out of bucking tradition so dominantly as to say fuck your tradition, and so here we have it, in the year 2017, Offset is on pace to match his older cousin in independent star quality. The signs were more or less obvious last year; "Bad and Boujee" is undeniably the group's biggest hit and Offset is undeniably its designated driver. But the prophesy was bolded and underlined after "Slide." On their highest profile guest feature to date, Quavo shimmers, or skates—only for Offset to zip right by him.
The rest of Kiari's year has been smooth sailing. He shined brightest in the pop lane again in just two bars on Katy Perry's guilty pleasure "Bon Appetit," with a playful double-time drawl. As the more brusque member of the group, he's been a go-to for features on menacing bangers like Metro Boomin's "No Complaints," Cardi's proto "Bodak" "Lick" and especially Gucci's "Met Gala." And while he may not croon, the unofficial solo song "Monday" (a top 15 of the year, for me) proves he's got the juice to strike out on his own whenever he wants. The Migos are unstoppable. We'll probably be setting aside blurb space for Takeoff on this list this time next year. —Frazier Tharpe
Lil Uzi Vert
Last Year’s Rank: 19
Let’s start with “XO Tour Llif3,” Lil Uzi Vert’s recently double platinum-minted calling card. It’s a strange hit: immediately compelling and compulsively listenable, but painful and restless, jumping between strained singing, muttered adlibs, and a stuttering, rapid-fire flow that feels incongruous in one of the year’s most unrestrained summer singalongs. It’s versatility that makes Lil Uzi Vert such a compelling figure, and why he’s just released an album that, after its first (very popular) week, appears like it’s only going to grow in stature from here. He sings, fits in with the SoundCloud set that prizes catchy phrases over verses, but can also weave in and out of a beat at will. He’s constantly trying on different hats, often on a bar-to-bar basis, and, for right now, no one can look away. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Last Year’s Rank: 10
Big Sean kicked off 2017 by dropping his fourth studio album I Decided in February and he’s had a pretty active year hitting the festival circuit. The Detroit native took a different approach with this album than he did on his 2015 project Dark Sky Paradise, opting for a concept album with a storyline about aging and regret.
On I Decided, he crossed an item off his bucket list, securing a verse from the King of Detroit himself, Eminem, on “No Favors.” But the album didn’t linger the way past projects of his have, and though it’s solid, it didn’t quite cut through the noise of a very busy, fruitful year for hip-hop. But he’s showing no signs of quaffing his ambition, and retains his spot in the top 10. —Alexa Shouneyia
Last Year's Rank: N/A
Vic Mensa has come a long way since he was "that kid in Savemoney who's not Chance." The Chicago rapper may be young, but at 24 he's already a seasoned veteran. He put in a nearly four-year stint in the hella underrated group Kids These Days before going solo. After forming the Savemoney collective, Vic got on many fans' radars back in 2013 with his debut mixtape Innanetape.
But Vic seemed destined for far bigger things than impressing internet rap nerds and tastemakers. He signed to Roc Nation in 2015, which put some very powerful people in his corner. Soon he was collaborating with Kanye, hanging out with Hov, making powerful statements about police violence on network TV, and even getting hated on by Drake.
None of this would mean anything, though, if there wasn't the music to back it up—and there most assuredly is. Vic's proper debut album The Autobiography, executive produced by No I.D., more than lives up to the hype. In fact, if that record is any indication, we're likely to see Vic on this very list every year until he ages out. —Shawn Setaro
Last Year’s Rank: 9
Rocky is underrated as an artist and as a leader. The Mob hasn’t missed a step since Yams passed in 2015, as some may have anticipated, and Rocky deserves credit for not letting the movement they built fall apart. He also needs credit for signing Playboi Carti to his AWGE imprint and nurturing Carti’s talent for as long as it took. This year, he popped up on the latest Cozy Tapes and all signs point to a new project from the Mob’s boss. With a borderline classic under his belt with A.L.L.A., Rocky is gonna surprise us again before 2017 is up. —Angel Diaz
Last Year’s Rank: N/A
It’s insane to think that 2017 was truly the year that Quavo and the Migos got that mainstream look. Most of us remember when “Versace” broke in 2013, but for the rest of the country, it wasn’t until “Bad and Boujee” rode that late-2016 wave into 2017 success that things changed. Not only did that single turn their 2017 album Culture into a highly-anticipated LP, but it heightened the talk surrounding Quavo, the 26-year-old Atlanta native who has been pegged as the obvious “star” from the trio, primarily for his undeniable hook writing. The early 2017 success that the Migos had helped catapult Quavo into guest features for DJ Khaled (“I’m the One”), Drake (“Portland”), Major Lazer (“Know No Better”), and A-Trak (“Believe”). That’s not to mention the collab album between Quavo and Travis Scott. With or without a group, Quavo’s stock rose in 2017, and it feels like this is only the beginning. —khal
Last Year's Rank: 14
Travis Scott is comfortably in the top 10, and several slots higher than his spot last year, because of his dedication to perfecting his output: his production, visuals, live-show experience… hell, even his adlibs. He’s inspiring artists who have influenced the game before him—like his idols, Kanye West and Kid Cudi—and he’s impacting the style of hip-hop hopefuls looking to stomp in his footsteps. Last year’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight was a slow-burner, building its acclaim long after the album’s release, instead of flying into week one and fading out the next week.
In 2017, Scott has continued to refine his work. The production and hook of his loosie “Butterfly Effect” compels you to hit repeat, and the video for “Goosebumps” with Kendrick Lamar, accurately reflects the otherworldly creativity of the two. Scott has also become that dude lately for R&B singers looking for an edge: he took SZA’s earworm “Love Galore” to another level, and he fits neatly in the pocket on Miguel’s latest single, “Sky Walker.” Between his features and Birds’ supposed followup, Astroworld—plus a possible joint album with Quavo?!— Scott is showing no signs of slowing up. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Last Year’s Rank: 20
What a difference a year makes. This April, he released his sophomore album All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, which showcased a more focused and mature approach, while also highlighting his range in subject matter. Joey jumps from gritty (“Rockabye Baby”) to ambitious (“Legendary”) to uplifting (“For My People”) seamlessly, and without sacrificing his lyrical abilities; the six-minute closer "Amerikkkan Idol" is proof of that.
The project scored a top five debut on the Billboard 200, and while no song fared better than “Devastated” commercially, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ symbolizes how far he’s come and where he could go next, charts included.
“Always wanted to have super powers,” Joey quips at the beginning of “For My People.” He may not have a cape, but the Brooklyn native is doing his part to carry the NYC flag with pride and purpose. —Edwin Ortiz
Tyler, The Creator
Last Year’s Rank: 18
What does it take to change your ranking dramatically? Music. That’s it, really. Tyler didn’t leapfrog from 18 to top five with fashion moves or a TV show or even some blistering radio freestyle. No, he put out the best album of his career and blossomed into the artist he’s always hinted at but never fully embodied. Flower Boy is musically ambitious and bright, emotionally candid, and concentrated, like a bottled scent. His shortest album is also his most polyvocal, with contributions from Frank Ocean, ASAP Rocky, Jaden Smith, Kali Uchis, Estelle, Rex Orange County, Lil Wayne, Anna of the North, and Steve Lacy; most of the collaborators sing, as opposed to rap, and Tyler warbles himself, perhaps looking for something gentler to suit his subject matter: his heart, hidden and caged in questioning self-doubt. The sweetly immature and forlorn Tyler of “Analog” and “Okaga, CA” and “Awkward” emerges for an entire project, meaning you get close to Tyler and his desires than ever before. You feel him, but you’re never granted total transparency about his life. You don’t know him, he’s behind translucent glass. (But “it’s banal to be transparent,” as a writer once observed.)
Aroma is a residue. Break a bottle of perfume against the floor and even after the chunks and slivers are swept up and disposed off, the presence lingers in the room. There are enough details in the lyrics of Flower Boy to conceive of Tyler’s sexuality and image anew but, as Stephen Kearse observed in his review of the album, Tyler’s fundamentally coy, too. The pleasures of Flower Boy, then, live in its subtext, in memory, in remembrance, in the rich residue of what was there. “November,” the dreamy third-to-last song, drifts into this territory, with the month becoming a metaphor for any simpler past state you long to return to. Like Frank Ocean, Tyler’s music is becoming about the sadness of passing time. But, with Tyler, there’s the promise of a new life lived fully and maturely. Love that makes you feel like glitter, spread out and shining, diffuse in the open air.
Musically, I think that Tyler’s best days are ahead of him, especially if he continues to explore the spaces opened up by Flower Boy. And it’s presumptuous of course but I think the best days of his personal life are likely still ahead of him too. —Ross Scarano
Last Year’s Rank: 5
Big Fish Theory is a weird album. Vince Staples, in his first full-length since the bleak, bass-heavy statement of intent that was Summertime ‘06, only went deeper. He mined harsh, metallic beats for sounds that came closer to warped dance music than anything resembling modern hip-hop. It was as if he picked the most difficult instrumentals to rap over on purpose, every song a challenge. Then he proceeded to rip each one apart.
The Vince Staples of ‘17 is surgical, interested in songs as much as verses, in vision as much as execution. He’s still the brash provocateur that’s made him as famous for his interviews as his music, but he’s emerging as one of the rappers with the most cohesive visions on offer, an auteur with a precise, restless flow and something to say. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Last Year’s Rank: 4
Thugger continues to bend the laws of sound with every song, feature, and hook, contorting his voice like Simon Biles whenever he deems it necessary. He hasn’t been able to deliver a flawless full album yet, his best songs and features are more exciting and idea-crammed than some discographies.
This year, he gave us a pop-country-R&B fusion album about love and family. Beautiful Thugger Girls had a strange rollout for a strange collection of songs and though they don’t rank among his best, they show that Thug is anything but complacent. (His 2017 loosies, “Safe” especially, are worth your time too.)
We, as a people, as a community, as a species, do not deserve the constant creativity Jeffrey brings to the table. We will only appreciate his contributions when he’s gone, like we do with every genius who has ever lived. —Angel Diaz
Chance The Rapper
Last Year’s Rank: 3
Last week, a tweet went viral. It was from a Chance the Rapper parody account, if you extend the definition of parody to include imitating a famous person closely enough to trick readers and hopefully make some money once the audience gets big enough. In @Chancefrom79th’s defense, its tweet was a pitch-perfect imitation of what Chance has become: a reassuring, earnest missive about Doing The Right Thing. It was also an indication of how Chance has become a figurehead in the celebrity world: the fake tweet has over 241,000 retweets.
Much can be made of Chance’s public persona—the young man striving to change the world—and the die-hard support that’s growing for him, as well as the inevitable backlash brewing on the horizon. But the truth is, all of it would be moot if he wasn’t a great artist. 2016 was a coup d’etat for the young Chicago rapper, a blowing open of doors from underground to mainstream that hasn’t been seen since Drake and Kendrick. And, like Drake and Kendrick, it was on the back of some fantastic music.
Coloring Book was one of the best albums of the year, and if there was ever any doubt that his gospel-tinged turns into singing tempted anyone to believe Chance wasn’t nice on the mic, his guest turns on others’ songs proved that he can hold his own with the best. And, if the clips Chance has been sharing on social media are any indication, whatever he’s going to be cooking up next will mean he stays at the top spot for a while to come. —Brendan Klinkenberg
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