By Alex Siber
Even before the New Year’s Eve hangovers had fully faded and Kanye’s heartfelt “Only One” ushered in this decade’s midpoint, many music publications signed on to a shared stance: 2014 left rap fans disappointed, and 2015 was certain to avenge its predecessor’s mediocrity.
From Complex think pieces to “Best Of” blurbs, a host of writers (and fans too) bullied 2014. The roast was real, and made sense, to an extent. Last year, many of hip-hop’s biggest names (Drake, Kendrick, and Kanye to name a few) were quiet, and there were huge gaps between the releases of big rap chart-toppers that had everyone talking. The most anticipated albums—Rick Ross’ Mastermind, Ab-Soul’s These Days…, Young Jeezy’s Seen It All: The Autobiography, T.I.’s Paperwork—came and went without much lasting impact.
2014’s “event” albums were few and far between. Until Nicki Minaj and J. Cole stole December, only Big K.R.I.T., Future, and ScHoolboy Q made serious noise. Even then, Q unveiled Oxymoron in February and six months passed between Honest (April) and Cadillactica (November). Notable free efforts such as Days Before Rodeo and Run The Jewels 2 made a splash, but much of the year was left wide open. This is the key—it was a chance for the next wave of stars to make their voices heard while rap fans weren’t completely preoccupied.
A list of 2014’s emerging artists reads like a casting call for hip-hop’s future. Raury rose from a suburban rooftop to share “God’s Whisper” and quickly found a legion of supporters. Mick Jenkins cemented his standing as an essential lyricist with The Water[s]. The club went up on a Tuesday with Makonnen, Cozz shared his dreams, and Bobby Shmurda’s hat never fell. Allan Kingdom toured the evergreens and then crafted one of the year’s most compelling projects with The Stand4rd. And don’t forget Pell, Boogie, Michael Christmas, Dej Loaf, Kevin Abstract, GoldLink, and Tunji Ige—whether you’re into one-hit wonders or sonic adventurers, 2014’s true freshmen class offered everything.
The argument that 2015 is already better than 2014 might prove valid if we were to consider nothing but the projects of A-listers. But what of the A-listers of tomorrow? It’s important to have telescopes trained toward the skies, always watching for stars, but there’s a need to consider the creators making vibrations at ground level. And fewer underground tremors have struck in 2015—the abundance of new talent in 2014 feels staggering in comparison.
The major difference between this year and the last comes down to the release landscape—there’s simply been less room for smaller artists to draw attention this time around, and fewer notable newcomers in general.
The major difference between this year and the last comes down to the release landscape—there’s simply been less room for smaller artists to draw attention this time around
In the past six months, multiple hip-hop behemoths broke their silence to serve up the goods. Lupe Fiasco’s redeeming Tetsuo & Youth and Joey Bada$$’ debut held down January. In February, Drake dropped a surprise album posing as a mixtape that promptly ran house parties and car stereos. 12 days later, Big Sean rode the “Blessings” wave to his third studio full-length. Kendrick Lamar came through with another certified classic in To Pimp A Butterfly in March, and Action Bronson and Earl Sweatshirt let loose albums the following week. Tyler, the Creator’s Cherry Bomb buzzed in April, and A$AP Rocky’s June opus A.L.L.A. swept much of the press off its feet. Hardly a month has elapsed without a significant release from one of rap’s heavy hitters. And we can’t forget the Future tapes.
For independent artists and even label affiliates on the come-up, a period this stacked can make the prospect of sharing a project a tad more daunting. Not everyone can pull a J. Cole and go head to head with giants, let alone benefit from listeners’ attention.
It’s not like it’s all Goliaths, no Davids in 2015. The success of Post Malone and Fetty Wap has been impressive. The former made the best song of the year so far and the latter has everyone singing along to contagious hits like “Trap Queen” and “My Way.” Boston’s Cousin Stizz and Toronto’s Jazz Cartier brought us a bit closer to their respective cities. If you take the time to dig, there is an impressive array of fresh talent bubbling up in 2015, but, so far, fewer new artists have had breakout moments than in 2014.
It’s what rises from the cracks in hip-hop’s bedrock that really makes a year memorable for fans with their eyes on the future. Those new talents ensure a healthy hip-hop landscape for years to come. A team that invests all its energy in big league starters—meanwhile neglecting the farm system—has a much smaller championship window.
A little less than six months remain in 2015. The story arc is still incomplete. With so many major artists riding out tours and press circuits, the second half might provide opportunities for the underdogs to step up. But until Ye’s SWISH, Drake’s Views from the 6, and a half-dozen exciting new talents step forward to put the debate to bed, let’s respect what 2014 gave us—a new wave of talented artists who could end up defining the future, not just the present. The titans have thrown plenty of punches this year so far, but as long as the hidden gems of the internet and underground remain under-appreciated, 2015 will be missing something that made 2014 special.