Once again, we talked to 10 of the hottest artists who are climbing the charts, breaking the Internet or just dominating our office stereos. This month: Tee Grizzley’s viral freedom raps, Elton John-cosigned rock band Middle Kids, Zeshan B’s continent-crossing soul music and more.
Sounds Like: A young soldier rapping his truths
For Fans of: Kevin Gates, Meek Mill, Mozzy
Why You Should Pay Attention: Tee Grizzley’s breakout hit, “First Day Out,” captures the joy of finally being free after a long period of incarceration. It’s inspired by the Detroit rapper’s 18-month prison stint on home invasion charges, and his hopes for what he’d accomplish when he got out. A month after he was released in October 2016, he posted a video on YouTube, and the song quickly gained traction, gathering millions of views before peaking at Number 88 on the Billboard Hot 100. Amidst significant label interest, Tee Grizzley settled on 300 Entertainment. His critically acclaimed debut mixtape, My Moment, features a collection of raps he wrote in prison as well as production from DJ Mustard, Sonny Digital and Motor City street rap vet Helluva. The themes range from “No Effort,” a barking, swaggering bit of braggadocio, to “Testimony,” where he harmonizes soulfully about his close relationship with God. Meanwhile, he has dropped another rising single, “From the D to the A,” which features a cameo from Lil Yachty.
He Says: While Tee Grizzley served his sentence, he buried himself in books. “I read a lot of Louis L’amour Western books. I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, all of them. I read The Art of War,” he said. “I read a lot of black novels, too. I read a lot of Five Percenter books. [Five-Percent Nation] is not something that I considered converting to,” says Grizzley, who considers himself a Christian, “but I definitely appreciate what they had to say, though.”
Hear for Yourself: “You ever been inside a federal courtroom?” asks Tee Grizzley in “First Day Out,” a stirring tale of a hard-knock’s criminal life and eventual redemption. Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: Heartfelt, clever ruminations at the intersection of indie rock and alt-country
For Fans of: Lucius, Angel Olsen, First Aid Kit
Why You Should Pay Attention: Middle Kids’ “Edge of Town” made its way to Elton John’s Beats 1 show and has been streamed 5 million times on Spotify. Before forming the band last year, vocalist Hannah Joy experimented with myriad settings for her dramatic voice and bittersweet narratives. The versatile Aussie dabbled in dance music and piano folk, but eventually, via collaboration with bassist/husband Tim Fitz, a rock concept emerged. Songs from Joy’s solo work and newer tracks featuring Fitz and drummer Harry Day, coalesce on their self-titled EP, released in February on Domino Records.
“There is something very exciting about opening up the creative process to other people when you have a similar vision,” Day says. “Working and writing for Middle Kids has brought a lot more expansion and depth to the songs, musically and sonically.” Agitated in one moment and delicate in the next, the EP is a satisfying journey for a restless mind.
The trio recently hit SXSW and toured with Cold War Kids in the U.S. “They got us up for their last song each night of the tour – a song called ‘Something is Not Right With Me’ from their second album – and we all would have a dance with some percussion,” Joy recalls. “On the last night of tour they presented us with a little plastic trophy for being their support band.” Soon they’ll open for musical hero Ryan Adams back in Australia. A full-length album is in the works, with a couple singles set to emerge later this year: Joy promises “more songs that make you feel angsty and happy at the same time.”
They Say: “Recording at home is great because you can record in and around moments of domesticity like washing the dishes or taking the trash out. It really feels like the songs grow from your life in a cool way,” says Day. “In saying that though it can be a bit of a mess and it’s hard to know when something is finished.”
Hear for Yourself: A road trip mixtape contender that collides slide guitar, distortion and Joy’s unsettled vibrato, “Edge of Town” starts in one realm and concludes somewhere else entirely. Reed Fischer
Sounds Like: A self-reflective diary entry written on a feather-stuffed pillow.
For Fans of: Selena Gomez, Hey Violet, Tegan & Sara’s synth-poppy side.
Why You Should Pay Attention: This California-born dream-pop singer-songwriter has been making waves on YouTube and on the road since releasing her 2015 EP This Side Of Paradise, which features the steal-your-lady swirl “Girls Like Girls.” In 2016, she released its followup, Citrine, which combines close-to-the-bone honesty with sparkling, breathy synth-pop on tracks like the self-affirming “Gravel to Tempo.” Kiyoko’s vision is complemented by her music videos, which she directs. “I’m really inspired by color – I always tell my DPs, ‘I want it creamy – I want it to look like an orange Dreamsicle,'” she says. “I’m always using the word ‘creamy,’ because I want it to feel cinematic; I don’t want it to just be like, ‘Oh, there she is singing.’ I want to make sure that people can sink into the stories.” Kiyoko is currently at work on her first full-length, and she’s heading back out on tour later this spring.
She Says: “I’ve been releasing music and telling my stories, and I had no idea – no idea – the type of impact that was going on. I was crying every night at meet-and-greets because I was meeting these young girls. Like a 14-year-old girl who was driven by her mom, and her mom would look me in the eye and say, ‘Keep singing from the heart. You mean the world to my daughter.’ Just to see that support – ‘I’m going to support my gay daughter to go see her gay idol at a concert’ – is amazing. That’s just not something I grew up around; to me it’s kind of still unheard of. Some girls would take 40-hour bus rides because their parents couldn’t know they were out [of the closet], but they wanted to see my concert. Other people are just like, ‘I came out to myself with your music video,’ or ‘I found my girlfriend through your music video.’ The stories just go on and on, and it’s crazy, and it’s beautiful, and it makes me so thankful that I’m able to ignite that hope and that light for them. It is a dark time right now, and we all rely on music for that escape.”
Hear for Yourself: The dreamy “Sleepover” takes comfort in fantasy and booming beats while Kiyoko furtively outlines her romantic frustrations. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: Nico in a private karaoke room singing Jewel until closing
For Fans of: Nick Drake, Mazzy Star, Adele’s “Someone Like You”
Why You Should Pay Attention: Last month, Lorde gushed about her favorite new song, “Imagining My Man,” by this fellow New Zealand singer-songwriter. “This song blows my head off,” the singer wrote, complimenting Harding’s frantic yet delicate vocal phrasing (“a soft flurry of gut punches”). Like Lorde, there is a forlorn steadiness to Harding. Her second album, Party, due next month on 4AD, is full of melancholic but firm declarations. “Here is your princess/And here is the horizon,” Harding repeats with an acrid earnestness on single “Horizon,” a song, addressed to a partner, about presenting your unfiltered self to another person. Her voice is capable of a spectrum of subtle turns, and her knack for metaphor is top notch: Of a break-up, she sings, “The sugar has run out.”
She Says: “I’m trying to know who I am and be honest about it. … We all want the same thing, love and acceptance. That’s pretty much it. And what I’ve learned is that unless I’m happy with my side of the nickel, it can change violently – quickly. I’m one of those people who’s always changing. There’s nothing wrong with it but it means I am a hard person to hold onto, I guess. I had someone say to me once, ‘Why do you have to live so hard all the time?'”
Hear For Yourself: “Imagining My Man”
is a piano caught in the winds of Harding’s mind. The song is about an
actual person, she says. “I wanted a less sophisticated verb than ‘Thinking
About My Man,’ or ‘Wanting My Man,'” Harding says. “I wanted the word
[“imagining”] to suggest someone who isn’t thinking clearly.” Sarah Grant
Sounds Like: Memphis R&B, Chicago blues and a jolt of raw South Asian soul.
For Fans of: Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Arif Lohar
Why You Should Pay Attention: First generation Indian-American Zeshan Bagewadi has sung for two presidents: Jimmy Carter deemed his version of the national anthem “best ever,” and Barack Obama invited him to the White House. Obama came up in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, with whose choir Zeshan B closed out Black History Month this year. The gospel roots of this powerful soul singer are apparent on his new Vetted, which debuted at Number Eight on Billboard‘s World Music chart. World music? Well, in addition to cover versions and originals dealing with frequent soul-music concerns such as lust, alienation and resistance, Vetted includes “Meri Jaan” (My Baby), a sexy original sung in Urdu, and “Ki Jana” (Who Knows), a 200-year-old Sufi poem in Punjabi. Horns and strings also accommodate a droning tanbur and harmonium in Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” which Zeshan opens with an improvisatory Indian-classical alap.
He Says: “The singers I idolize – Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway – all started singing in church. I grew up with devotional music. I was a cantor in my mosque as a kid and I sang in a gospel choir during high school. I was taken in by Chicago’s black Baptist community and have a strong relationship with Trinity United and the Reverend Otis Moss. But India and Pakistan have their own type of soul music that’s not as commercialized as Bollywood. It’s down-home, raw, and visceral, especially in Pakistan, where most of the population lives in abject poverty. People sing about unrequited love, urban despair, and oppression – just like here. It’s all about that feel, that groove, bro. It comes from a deep place. I’m into all music that serves a greater purpose, whatever that may be.”
Hear for Yourself: George Perkins’ response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s
funeral was “Cryin’ in the Streets”; Zeshan turns in a stately version for the era of #BlackLivesMatter. Richard Gehr
Sounds Like: Boom-bap revival by way of Outkast’s “Elevators (Me & You)”
For Fans of: J. Cole, Anderson Paak, Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
Why You Should Pay Attention: J.I.D. is signed to J. Cole’s Interscope imprint Dreamville. Like Gucci Mane, he claimed East Atlanta’s Bouldercrest Road, but raises and strains his voice in a way that recalls Californian Kendrick Lamar at his most stressed. J.I.D. scoffs at how trap rap shifted from being workingman’s blues to a experimental playspace where poseurs roam. “Then you say you trap, you be lying nigga/I don’t fuck with none of y’all happy trappers,” he raps in The Never Story, his Dreamville debut. This bleak, no-nonsense perspective first caught J. Cole’s attention in 2014. As part of the Atlanta-founded Spillage Village and the group Earthgang, J.I.D. met Dreamville producer Ced Brown while on tour. Nurturing that relationship led to J.I.D.’s biggest feature yet. Last year, he sang backing vocals for what became “Jermaine’s Interlude,” off DJ Khaled’s Grammy-nominated Major Key. Now, he and Levi Carter are opening for Jazz Cartier on an 18-date tour.
He Says: “I just got my wisdom tooth taken out. I started recording again last week after I healed up. This is the first time I’ve been able to do the shit and there’s no physical problems. I used to have straight migraines after shows or when I record, and I was spitting blood out because I bit my cheek with the fucking wisdom tooth, and it was just sucking for years. So they took my wisdom tooth out. But I take it with me just in case. I was talking to one of my engineers, and he’s like, ‘I don’t know, man. You might lose all your juice after they took your wisdom tooth out. It just may not be the same.’ He was making a joke, like a total asshole. So I definitely got that shit with me. On some weirdo shit.”
Hear for Yourself: “Never” has J.I.D. coming out swinging at those who glorify a harmful lifestyle. Christina Lee
Sounds Like: Soft, sugary soul mixed with jolts of gospel
For Fans of: Tony Rich, Babyface, Joe
Why You Should Pay Attention: Earlier this month, Ross reached Number One on the Urban Adult Contemporary chart with “Long Song Away,” a remarkable outlier on the airwaves. Quiet and bare, with immaculate backing vocals, the single smolders but never erupts. It shows how much Ross absorbed during his time as a writer in Atlanta, where he penned tracks for R&B mainstays like Johnny Gill, Trey Songz and SWV. After years working behind the scenes, Ross joined the Motown roster as a solo act, and his new album, The Awakening, mingles the secular and the spiritual at a time when gospel is gushing into the mainstream on records from Kanye West, Chance the Rapper and others. In addition to the roughly 8.3 million listeners who encountered “Long Song Away” on the radio last week, Ross managed to impress the legendary R&B singer/songwriter Babyface, who contributed to The Awakening track “In the Name of Your Love.”
“God is definitely at the helm, the cornerstone of my life and my sanity within the music business,” Ross explains. “A lot of these opportunities that happened is because of him. I acknowledge the fact that this is a blessing. The only thing I can do is continue to give Him praise for all the things He’s done for me.”
He Says: “I am so young for [the Urban AC] format. When anybody sees me, they don’t expect me – it freaks them out. They’re like, ‘What do you know about this?’ I know what it feels like to be in love, to yearn for someone, to miss someone, to lose someone. That feeling shouldn’t die with the times. Most of the time people try to go with what the trend is, but the truth doesn’t change with the trends. I need music that is bigger than just what’s current right now. You have so many forces that are trying to tell you what you can’t do. It’s a long battle.”
Hear for Yourself: On “Long Song Away,” Ross strips R&B down to just a few essential elements: a guitar lick, a bassline, a handclap, a kick drum. “Close your eyes,” he instructs, “and dream that we’ll never grow old.” Elias Leight
Sounds Like: A hushed exchange outside a pounding club
For Fans of: Early Grimes, Arthur Russell, Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”
Why You Should Pay Attention: Welsh-born Kelly Lee Owens began working in a cancer treatment hospital while still a teenager until patients and doctors urged her to chase her dream of music. Owens soon worked as an intern at XL Records, played bass in indie rock bands and took a job at a record shop, before she fell in love with the analog gear at co-worker Daniel Avery’s studio. She began focusing on her own music, offering up an emotional take on electronic music. Her track “Arthur” was most recently chosen to soundtrack an Alexander McQueen runway show.
She Says: “People at the end of their lives would tell me, ‘If this is what you dream of, don’t be like me regretting what you didn’t do, go do it,'” Owens says. “When I’m in the studio, writing and producing, it feels like absolutely what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel most at peace.” An indie rock fan, Owens at first assumed that dance music was easy to make and didn’t respect it. That perspective has changed, but she still she works with analog gear instead of plug-ins. “I felt that there was something a bit more emotive that could be coaxed out of electronic sounds. I wanted to bridge that world to where the human and meditative element comes through. Ultimately, it’s a human being that has to operate these machines, it’s not the machines themselves.”
Sounds Like: A festive, percussive blend of Colombian tropical pop and smooth Caribbean grooves – with an avant-garde tinge and jawbone percussion
For Fans of: Frente Cumbiero, DJ Quantic, Meridian Brothers
Why You Should Pay Attention: For their critically acclaimed 2012 debut, Ondatrópica musical directors Will “Quantic” Holland and Frente Cumbiero’s Mario Galeano spent three weeks in a vintage Medellin studio creating a sprawling, cumbia-centric map of Colombia with 40 of the country’s finest musicians. For Baile Bucanero, though, the duo temporarily relocated to Isla de Providencia, a tiny English-speaking island about 400 miles off Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Ensconsed in the Midnight Dream Theatre studio, Holland and Galeano (who begin a short DJ tour on April 18) drew local singers and MCs into their fold and brewed up a refreshing batch of breezy tropical concoctions between scooter runs for “bushy rum,” as the local hooch is known. Cumbia meets calypso and dancehall grinds with champeta in tracks that always maintain a soft focus on Afro-Colombia and Caribbean culture.
They Say: What is Baile Bucanero opener “Commotion” about? “I’ve traveled a lot in the Caribbean and on the Caribbean coast of Colombia,” Will Holland says, “and commotion is something I can relate to. There’s always something going on – somebody fighting over a chicken, or some woman in pajamas shouting at a guy from a doorway. So I wrote that song while thinking about Providencia. But halfway through the recording, the guy who sings it, Shala Boom, asked me, ‘Hey, Will, what does “commotion” mean?’ [Laughs.] And he explained to me, ‘We don’t say “commotion” here, we say jaggin’.’ We wanted to make sure we got that onto the track, so Shala sings, ‘Don’t go jaggin’ around!'”
Hear for Yourself: Afrobeat visits the Caribbean in “Hummingbird,” a soaring blend of horns, percussion and sweet female voices. Richard Gehr
Sounds Like: Les filles des riot; French feminist punks with switchblades
For Fans of: Early Hole; Early Babes in Toyland; nouveau riot grrrl that doesn’t Xerox Bikini Kill
Why You Should Pay Attention: This Parisian quartet named their band after a serially abused British girl who, at age 11, was convicted of strangling two young boys. That theme of acting out and seeking vengeance juts shardlike through Mary Bell’s gripping guitars, with vocalist Alice Carlier growling and screaming like she’s ready to pounce. “Gaïlla [Montanier, drummer] was always telling me to scream more because I was shy,” says Carlier. “I didn’t really know if they liked it, apparently they did!”
The band self-titled first album, edition of 500, dropped in January on French punk label Danger Records, and it’s full of rebuttals to masculinist status quo and straight-up declarations of rejection. “I really can’t imagine playing music without being political,” says guitarist Victoria Arfi, something that’s reflected in their nervousness about France’s upcoming presidential election. “A new scandal erupts every two days and this is so part of the political institution right now that the people are gonna vote knowingly for those corrupted bastards.” The band’s vivid songwriting, though, tends to focus on more specific vignettes, coming in short bursts. The album’s longest track, “Trash Tongue,” is two minutes and 35 seconds, a grimy little bop about embodying womanly multiplicities, being “anything I wanna be, I don’t care what you think about me.”
They Say: “Most people who come to our gigs are very supportive, either women or men. But sexism is so deeply anchored in mentality, that even when people try to be nice, they say or write some very weird stuff,” says Arfi. “Sound engineers sometimes behave like assholes because we are women. Most of the time, they think that as I am a woman, my guitar sound should be clear, with a lot of treble. I remember playing at a venue in Northern Paris once, and the sound engineer telling me at the end of the show, ‘Seeing you with your cute little dress, I really had no idea you could sound like a stoner guitarist.'”
Hear for Yourself: The simmering road rage of “Fire Fire” calls to mind the Hendrix song with a similar name – if the woman he addressed in it responded with a middle finger and dumped her beer on him. It tells a full story in just one minute, punk at its most blissfully compact. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd