Words: Dylan Murphy
Behind the surge in UK hip hop’s popularity on a global scale is an undercurrent of diversity propping it up. From enigmatic multi-hyphenates to ruthless MC’s here are the acts that should be on your radar in 2021.
For every Headie One spitting thought-provoking street anthems, there’s a Lee Scott dropping spliff ends between bars, a Little Simz sharing meditative gems or a Dave threatening to break the States. While it’s important to make the distinction that grime and drill are not hip hop, but their own distinctive genres, it would be negligent to ignore the crossover between sounds happening right in front of our eyes.
Moreover, while the title references hip-hop, it is more of a catch-all term for the diverse range of acts included that arm themselves with the art form as just one part of their musical repertoire. Many of the artists have little in common with each other, but that’s testament to the diversity of styles and influences emanating out of the UK right now.
There are a few familiar faces included in a list that aims to capture the most exciting up and coming rappers cutting their teeth in the UK right now. However, the most impressive thing of all was the ability of many of these artists to build audiences in a year defined by a total absence of live music. In no particular order, here are the UK hip hop acts you need to know.
The word ordinary isn’t in Bree Runway’s vernacular. Bursting onto the scene with the theatrical 2000AND4EVA she’s cemented her position as an explosive shapeshifter unperturbed by traditional conceptions of genre.
Whether it’s the maximalist guitar rifts of ‘LITTLE NOKIA remix’ featuring fellow trailblazer Rico Nasty or the shiny pop-leaning croons of ‘ROLLS ROYCE’, Bree’s distinctive vocals are never at risk at being submerged by production that could easily swallow more tentative acts.
While she raps, it’s just one part of her musical repertoire, that’s guided by a desire to rewrite the rules rather than be contained to dated categorisation that fails to give her music the breathing space it deserves.
Possessing an inimitable dynamism and pop-crossover potential and having a vocal fan in Missy Elliott Bree Runway might just be 2021’s breakout act.
When it comes to dropping new music, Backroad Gee keeps fans on their toes. Born in East London to Congolese parents and cutting his teeth in the melting pot of the capital, much of BRG’s appeal lies in the unpredictability of his output.
Part of an increasing number of artists hot stepping between a myriad of styles including grime, drill and afrobeat, Backroad Gee has an impressive musical arsenal at his disposal. As highlighted by the different approaches taken in the romantic and jazz-infused afrobeat cut ‘Take Time‘ and his ruthless feature on Pa Salieu’s ‘My Family‘.
Keen to sidestep any allegiance to established sounds, Gee is a mercurial act that isn’t letting the modern climate define him.
With a MOBO nomination for ‘Best Newcomer’, an acting credit in short film Hallelujah To My Striker and a showstopping Daily Duppy that hit a million views in less than a week under her belt, Ivorian Doll seems primed for greatness in 2021.
Radiating charisma, confidence and carrying a strong visual identity Ivorian Doll is effortlessly cutting through a misogynistic and male-dominated genre with her unapologetic and sexually liberated lyrics.
Bonus points for the Daily Duppy featuring production from Irish rising star Kid Spyral.
It’s fair to say that the world is feeling pretty soulless at the moment, subsequently “vibes” are a valuable commodity and London artist Sam Wise has them in abundance.
No new kid on the block, Wise has been ripping up traditional conceptions of UK rap with his House of Pharaohs crew for a minute. With his appeal lying as much in his technical ability and versatility as it does to his penchant for crafting infectious head-nodding hooks.
Never caught lacking when it comes to the visual treatment of his art, Sam has kept fan’s relentless hunger for new music at bay with an array of cuts. Whether he’s presenting a sun-kissed day in the life in ‘How It Feels‘ or submerging himself in a bath of fruit loops in the otherworldly ‘Downtown‘, Wise is an artist in the purest sense of the word.
NiNE8 Collective is a breeding ground for the most exciting DIY creatives in the UK. Whether it’s the emergence of Biig Piig as a genuine chart contender or the relentless work rate of multi-hyphenate Lava La Rue, the London based crew are effortlessly stamping their influence on the game right now.
Next up is NAYANA IZ. Prior to the pandemic, she toured with Dublin rapper Kojaque and more recently shared her thought-provoking debut EP SMOKE & FLY. Marrying her Indian heritage with her experience growing up in London the young trailblazer crafts records through the lens of her own unique experience. Couple this with off kilter flows inspired by MF DOOM and Jai Paul-esque rhythms that defy genre the world is NAYANA’s oyster.
London wordsmith Knucks sits in the sweet spot between style and substance. Weaving a gritty realism often found in Drill and Grime into a more optimistic myriad of instrumentals, Knucks is carrying the torch for the UK’s storytellers whilst maintaining genuine crossover potential.
Though most recently linking up with Loyle Carner in ‘Standout‘ a solid place to start with Knucks is ‘Home‘. An immersive track that places the listener in the midst of London’s knife violence, it’s just one example highlighting his incredibly vivid lyricism.
In hip hop, drill and just about any genre indebted to gritty experiences, authenticity is a genuine currency. Lavida Loca cuts no corners when spinning her street tales and isn’t afraid to plant her flag in the ground when it comes to making bold statements.
Embodying the talismanic energy of a star striker back from injury, ‘The King Is Back’ announced her freedom from a stint in prison and the South London spitter has been in a rich vein of form since, linking up with Jelani Blackmanin ‘Foolish‘ for a last-minute winner in 2020.
Drill has been around for a while now, and predictably it’s core sounds are being broken down, twisted and reinvented. Acts like Central Cee are making inspired choices when it comes to beat selection and his 2020 hit ‘Loading’ demonstrates the appeal in his shapeshifting approach.
Owing much to his accessible sound and the infectious instrumental ‘Loading’ took off on TikTok this year, illustrating there’s space yet for the London rapper to enjoy some of the mainstream success the likes of Aitch and co have garnered in recent years.
Though he has a breezy and freewheeling approach, Cee’s cut-throat bars simultaneously give off the energy that he shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Scottish rapper CHLOBOCOP first caught our attention when she appeared on Kojaque and Luka Palm’s Green Diesel EP. After some long over due digging we have been enamoured ever since.
In 2020, she kept up the Irish connection when she linked up with fellow Soft Boy Gaptoof on ‘I’M THE BEST‘.
While hesitant to make comparisons due to the unique nature of her approach, the eery and sparse instrumentals that frequent her catalogue channel similar haunting energy to that of Three 6 Mafia. Coupled with a lackadaisical delivery informed by 80s punk and 90s goth acts, it results in a modern anti-pop sound not dissimilar to Deb Never, but still completely her own.
To the critics, TikTok often acts as an aggregator of the lowest common denominator for infectious music with a short life span. However, anyone on the app that manages to make it past the dance challenges and insufferable Gordon Ramsey stitches can testify to user’s ability ‘Music Tik Tok’ to curate genuinely good tracks.
It’s chill UK hip hop’s moment right now on the app and an act benefiting from the extra boost is Ashbeck. Making smoke session friendly anthems, the North West spitter’s hypnotic wordplay though relaxed never feels at risk of leaving his orbit.
Having dropped ‘Ashlondo 2’ and ‘Starmix’ in 2020, Ashbeck’s work rate isn’t in question, we are waiting eagerly for the next drop.
Labelling LOUIS CULTURE’s music as hip hop does his unbridled creativity a huge disservice. One part of West London’s Elevation/Meditation crew the Battersea born artist’s lyrical content explores being young, black and in Britain as it does partying and getting up to mischief as a kid. Meanwhile his sound owes a lot to the clubs his crew immersed themselves in growing up.
Having dropped Smile Soundsystem last year, the stage is set for a debut album.
Executing a meditative brand of music that sounds laidback rather than laborious, south east London’s KEYAH/BLU has the ability to effortlessly cut through cloudy instrumentals with razor-sharp observations.
Not relying on overwhelming instrumentation, KEYAH/BLU routinely drops confident spoken word-inspired quips over sparse instrumentals. The kind of music that would compliment any self-care routine. So do yourself a favour – light a candle, lean back and immerse yourself in the world of KEYAH/BLU.
Residing in Leicester, Sainté channelled the underdog energy of the 2015-16 winners for his release of Local MVP earlier this month. Teaming up with LA-based producer Parker Jazz, he’s perfected a formula for mellow affirmations that command considered listening.
With his impressive start to the new year, Sainté has injected a dose of his own conscious bars into a wave of chilled rap designed to give our gentle nervous system some much needed respite. In ‘Champagne Shots’ he’s more concerned with ‘chats over tea’ than posers flexing on Instagram. Having sharpened his pen game over the course of 3 singles in 2020 he’s crafted a conversational approach that provides an intimate vignette into his laidback lifestyle.
Though, last year was huge for London’s Enny it only feels like the beginning for the introspective MC. Having signed to Jorja Smith’s label FAMM she released three stellar singles including ‘Peng Black Girls’ which saw her make a splash beyond the local scene.
The cut makes striking observations on harmful traditional conceptions of beauty that relegate black women of all persuasions to the sidelines and is one the UK’s first great empowering anthems of the decade.
Bowing out of 2020 with a new remix of ‘Peng Black Girls’ with Jorja Smith, the sky is the limit for the thought-provoking rising star.
In recent years, the likes of slowthai and Pa Salieu have created precedents for rappers to break out from the satellite towns of middle England. Hailing from Lancashire in the north-west of England, Blackhaine is set to be the next act to follow suit.
Born out of a dark period spent drinking and abusing pharmaceuticals, his debut project Armour is indebted to the often unforgiving rhythm of the inner city and channels visceral emotions into a sharp monochrome offering. It’s a one of a kind project that can be loosely described as northern take on ambient drill.
Despite the global pandemic, Pa Salieu had a break out year in 2020 and announced himself as one of the UK’s hottest prospects. Having recently won the BBC Sound of 2021 award, the Gambian-born, Coventry-raised MC harnesses a brash mix of drill, hip hop and afrobeat keeping adversaries at arm’s length with his no-nonsense delivery.
Highlights in a busy year were ‘Hit The Block’ his ruthless collaboration with fellow rising star SL and his infectious street anthem ‘Frontline’.
Having survived a gun shot wound to the head, excelled in an overwhelming year and established himself with a breakout mixtape it seems nothing can stop Pa Salieu.
Though he’s been dropping heat on Soundcloud for a minute, CLBRKS caught our attention with his weird and wonderful Microwave Cooking 2000 project with production maestro Morriarchi.
There’s shades of Danny Brown in his wacky delivery and with the ability to create music available to just about anyone we’re here for the unsavoury bars that add an extra je nais se quois to an oversaturated and clinical musical landscape.
Though dropping gems since 2016, you get the feeling that things are starting to fall into place for introspective MC Lex Amor. Making light work of injecting emotion into instrumentals that would scare more experienced spitters, Amor’s meditative style means words are often stretched but never wasted.
Her debut project Government Tropicana is intimate, gripping and often feels like a retrospective diary entry for the experiences that made her.
The wait for FLOHIO’s debut project was worth it.
While you might already be familiar with the restless energy of FLO FLO through her collaborations with the likes of Clams Casino and Modeselektor, No Panic No Pain felt like a reintroduction of sorts. A relentless flex, the project sees the explosive power of FLO’s lyrical dexterity in full force as she pummels a host of futuristic beats into submission.
Following trends is like buying a ticket to the Titanic, but FLOHIO’s visceral and domineering approach exudes longevity, appealing to our innate appetite for chaos.
Not strictly a rapper, but an act capable of hopscotching to whatever tickles his fancy, LYAM is the enigmatic act you need to dig into.
Cloaking himself in a shroud of mystery, LYAM is a multi-hyphenate comfortable dabbling in a number of mediums that pulls from electronic, soundsystem culture and hip hop to craft immersive worlds.