What does it mean to be a “new artist” in 2018? For the purposes of this list, we defined the term as an artist who had their first major breakthrough moments over the past 12 months.
ASKiNGRADiO.com | 2018 Music | December 30
Someone like Tierra Whack has been dropping music for years, but the release of Whack World in May represented her best work to date, and it marked the first time she has received widespread attention from critics and fans alike—making her an ideal candidate for Best Artist of 2018 consideration. From commercial powerhouses like Juice WRLD to trendsetters like Valee, there was no shortage of exciting new artists who made their mark this year.
These are Complex’s picks for the best new artists of 2018.
15. Megan Thee Stallion
Megan Thee Stallion is a hot girl, and she knows it. The 23-year-old Houston rapper is the creator of an unofficial club of her own listeners, known as Hotties, who show up to her concerts and scream her lyrics like they wrote them. She released her breakthrough project, Tina Snow, over the summer, and it had me fanning myself like she was performing right in front of me. To keep it a buck, I had never heard a girl from my home state of Texas go so hard in her bars, while simultaneously oozing sex appeal like it’s nothing. Aside from that, her tone and presence (go ahead and fire up “Make a Bag” featuring Moneybagg Yo) set her apart from many of the female rappers that sprung up in 2018. Her new project, Fever, is set to drop in January, and all signs indicate that it’ll keep Megan’s hot streak going. —Kiana Fitzgerald
14. No Rome
I was sold on No Rome within 30 seconds of pressing play on his visually and sonically arresting video for “Seventeen.” The way he saunters onto the track after a swelling build-up is alternative dream-pop in its most perfect form. No Rome has only dropped one EP so far, but his aesthetic is already fully formed. Despite a 1975 co-sign and a sound that’s right in their synthy wheelhouse (Matt Healy told NME that he Kanye’d the young singer for “muse inspiration” before ultimately signing him), Rome doesn’t stray into genre experimentation like his labelmates. Still, their collab “Narcissist” proves he can more than hold his own in their zone when he wants to. With a solid EP, RIP Indo Hisashi, that showcases his range, the future is promising for the Philippines-based artist, irrespective of a co-sign.
13. Summer Walker
Summer Walker let everyone know that she is one of the brightest acts coming out of the ATL with debut album, Last Day of Summer. The stunning 12-track project shows off her eerie, intensely personal style. Each song is a vignette showcasing themes of love, vulnerability, and femininity. With LVRN in her corner, and a tour with 6lack in the books, it’s only a matter of time before the R&B artist transitions from critical darling to Billboard mainstay. —Kyle Shokeye
NIKI’s desire to become a meaningful artist in the Asian community manifested into her decision to become the first woman to join 88Rising, a collective based in the United States which advocates for Asian representation in the creative arts. Inspired by ‘90s R&B and pop, the 19-year-old Indonesia native’s debut project Zephyr is an exciting introduction to a one-of-a-kind artist. Tracks like “Dancing with the Devil,” “Vintage,” and “Around” highlight NIKI’s range, as she takes listeners from upbeat pop to beautiful, piano-laden performances, delivered with a charismatic charm. Consider this a precursor to the inevitable rise of NIKI. —Kyle Shokeye
11. YBN Cordae
YBN Cordae is not shy about his goal of positioning himself as a bridge between generations. He’s part of a crew with a guy who went viral for wearing a pink backpack, but he also professes his love for Big L and Kool G Rap at every opportunity. However, Cordae’s stance is more than just smart marketing—it’s who he really is, and you can hear it in every bar. He makes this most explicit in “Old N****s,” his song-length answer to J. Cole’s “1985,” but if you listen closely, it’s everywhere. Whether it’s the rhythmic changes and quick syllables of “Alaska” or the party raps of “Make Me Feel,” YBN Cordae brings together old-school lyricism with new-school subject matter and beats. And it’s all delivered with a precision and energy that indicates he’ll still be around long after the viral videos dry up. —Shawn Setaro
10. Rico Nasty
Rico Nasty’s first bit of notoriety came with a single called “Hey Arnold” from her Sugar Trap tape in 2016. However, it wasn’t until she released “Poppin” off Sugar Trap 2 in 2017 that she really started to find her sound. I remember first hearing it in an episode of Insecure, then mobbing to it in a hotel lobby after a wedding with World’s Fair. I was immediately in love with the way she raps using so much emphasis; it’s impossible not to match her energy whenever a Rico Nasty song comes on. Rico made it on this year’s list because she came even harder and made a major mark in 2018 with her album Nasty, which features an incredible flip of Noreaga’s “Superthug” on the hit “Countin’ Up,” as well as the banger “Trust Issues,” both produced by Kenny Beats. Actually, Kenny handled the bulk of the production on Nasty, and the two should really consider doing an entire tape together. Rico is a star. —Angel Diaz
Despite being a newcomer, Valee’s flow has (according to some) already been ripped by established superstars like Nicki Minaj and Tyler, the Creator. At this point, the G.O.O.D. Music signee is most well-known for making one of the most fun rap songs of the year (“Womp Womp”), but he also released an excellent EP called GOOD Job, You Found Me, which highlights his oft-imitated cadence. He managed to score a Pusha-T feature on the project, and also made his own guest appearance on Smino’s “Krushed Ice.” Having already established himself as an influential artist, Valee will be one to watch as the sound of rap continues to evolve. —Carolyn Bernucca
8. SOB x RBE
Who knew there were so many ways to describe your choppa? While SOB x RBE aren’t brand new, 2018 was the year when many got acquainted with the Vallejo, California-repping foursome. Their two albums (Ganginand Gangin II) were a bit long, and many speculated that rising star Yhung T.O. would leave the squad to go solo. But through all of that, the squad brought a much-needed, young Bay Area vibe to the game, crafting infectious anthems (including their crowning achievement “Paramedic!”) that boast of intense lifestyles over unique sonic beds. Hopefully the whole crew stays aligned; the game needs their energy right now. —khal
7. Ella Mai
Ella Mai first made a name for herself when her covers of popular songs by artists like Fetty Wap and Chris Brown started to gain attention on YouTube, Tumblr, and Instagram. When she released her single “Boo’d Up” in February 2017, the song was fairly well-received by her following, but it received an unexpected second life as it hit regular rotation in clubs and memes throughout 2018. Ella Mai might not necessarily be “new,” but there’s no denying that this was her breakout year, giving the London singer the ultimate push to release her self-titled debut album. —Adrienne Black
6. BlocBoy JB
Listening sessions are often excruciating affairs for everyone involved, as artists play music for a room full of stone-faced journalists who are either distractedly thinking about looming deadlines or looking absent-mindedly at their phones. The whole scene was captured perfectly in that Atlanta episode where Paper Boi visits a streaming service. Except, that is, when BlocBoy JB is involved. When he came to Complex to play new music a few months back, he turned the usually perfunctory experience into a party that lit up the whole office. 2018 was the year when BlocBoy JB brought that party to the world. With help from his longtime buddy, producer Tay Keith (and from a certain superstar rapper with Memphis ties), JB blessed us all with his energy—and his viral Shoot Dance. The first lyrics you hear on BlocBoy JB’s breakout project Simiare “I’m so turnt up.” It serves as a call to arms, a mission statement, and a raison d’être, all in one. —Shawn Setaro
5. Juice WRLD
When it comes to commercial success, no one had a more impressive rise in 2018 than Juice WRLD. “Lucid Dreams” steadily climbed the charts all year, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the Chicago artist has already quieted “one-hit wonder” talk with a series of strong follow-ups. His debut studio project, Goodbye & Good Riddance, has been a streaming monster since its release in May, and he’s already landed 12 songs on the Billboard charts. Of course, this list isn’t just a popularity contest; Juice WRLD wouldn’t rank this high if he didn’t have the talent to back it up. He has an effortless knack for melody, and his collaborators excitedly tell stories that describe the 20-year-old as a studio rat who is “in place to be a superstar, a legend, to be remembered forever.” If you aren’t a fan of his emo-leaning sound on “Lucid Dreams,” stay tuned. Recent radio freestyles revealed sharp skills as a rapper that we haven’t yet seen on his recorded material, and his hard-edged performance on Ski Mask The Slump God’s “Nuketown” uncovered a hidden wild side. Juice WRLD had an incredible year in 2018, but he still has some surprises up his sleeve. —Eric Skelton
There are only a select few emergent rappers who had a year as strong as Gunna, and he collaborated with one of them to produce a top 15 album of the year. Gunna has been grinding since ’16, but 2018 was the year he came with the clip fully loaded and didn’t stop firing. He kicked ’18 off with a solo qualifier for Best Albums of the Year—the hypnotic, skip-free Drip Season 3—and didn’t let up. Beyond that and Drip Harder, we also saw scene-stealers from Gunna on marquee albums like ASTROWORLD, Young Thug’s YSL showcase Slime Language, the Superfly soundtrack, and even surprise fare like Metro’s album and WRLD on Drugs. But even that wasn’t enough. My son leveled up further with placements alongside the likes of Tessa freaking Thompson and Mariah goddamn Carey. This young man showed out, and he’s just getting started. Even Thug would agree, given how he shadily said Tha Carter 5 wouldn’t be as hard as Drip Harder. The student may be on track to surpass the master, at least commercially. —Frazier Tharpe
3. Tierra Whack
The 2018 release of Tierra Whack’s audiovisual debut project Whack World could have easily amounted to 15 minutes of fame—literally, it’s only 15 minutes long. Instead, Whack managed to give us a full frontal view of her universe in just a SpongeBob episode’s time, and she left us yearning for more. Though Whack has been releasing music on her SoundCloud account for years (check out deep cuts like “Toe Jam” and “Child Please”), this was the year she stepped into her rightful place in the rap spotlight, verifiably unfuckwithable. Whack World features bars that range from melancholy to sinister to playful, and production that invokes the trap sound that permeates all of today’s mainstream hip-hop—but she manages to make it sound fresh. Tierra Whack is here to stay. Don’t sleep. —Carolyn Bernucca
2. Sheck Wes
Sheck Wes started to bubble in 2017 with the release of both “Live SheckWes Die SheckWes” and “Mo Bamba,” but the latter’s slow burn made it one of 2018’s biggest songs. It also helped that it was named after Sheck’s childhood friend, who happened to be a 2018 NBA lottery pick. Add Sheck’s run as a Yeezy model and his magnetic personality, and you have a true, bonafide star. This year he built on his momentum by releasing a debut album, Mudboy, and touring with his label head Travis Scott. And if you still doubt Sheck’s star power, just look around the internet for his “Mo Bamba” live performances, then play “Gmail” at ignorant levels while you get those packs off! —Angel Diaz
1. Lil Baby
“Wah-wah-wah, bitch I’m the Baby!” The first time I heard that bar, on Lil Baby’s “Yes Indeed,” I knew he was ready for a breakout year. The single featured a megastar (Drake), but Lil Baby had more than enough charisma to hold his own. From that moment forward, he’s been on a winning streak, dropping Harder Than Ever in May, Drip Harder with Gunna in October, and Street Gossip in November. Baby has the work ethic of a seasoned artist, even though he doesn’t look a day over 18. (He says his name came from hanging around older friends as a youngin’.) Lil Baby showed early signs of star power when he was featured on Quality Control’s Control the Streets Vol. 1 mixtape last December, then he fulfilled that potential by focusing on his abilities as a solo artist in 2018. His rapping/singing cadence has become more flexible and versatile than ever, making him sound at home on any type of beat. He also rounded out his talents as a tag-team partner in 2018, most notably with fellow Best New Artist pick Gunna. To top it all off, Lil Baby has been a commercial success, ending the year with two Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. The aforementioned “Yes Indeed” peaked at No. 6, and “Drip Too Hard,” the standout track from Drip Harder, reached No. 4. To cap the year, his latest project, Street Gossip, just debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200. To put it simply: In 2018, Lil Baby was that dude. —Kiana Fitzgerald