The challenges of 2020 hit the music scene in a special way. As up-and-coming names continued to make music and release full-length projects from the quiet of quarantine and on the fire of social issues, many established names whose album drops usually require grandiose teams and ultimately precede a tour remained quiet. So, as we look towards 2021, here are the 25 projects we need from the up-and-comers who made a name in 2020, and the popular names who had us all holding our breath.
The UK’s Ella Mai is arguably the most talented and prominent up-and-coming soulstress in music. Her 2018 self-titled debut shot her straight to the top of the Neo-Soul and R&B stratosphere, and with so many talented friends to work alongside with in London and beyond, her ceiling doesn’t exist. In a world where R&B and Neo-Soul are quickly becoming some of the music scene’s most global arenas, and with Ella Mai emerging as both scenes’ queen, a 2021 album could be just what Ella Mai – just what Planet Earth – needs to work towards a more emotionally-endowed, well-rounded space.
Mahalia was one of the most prolific names in music in 2018, releasing a smattering of singles, videos, collaborations, and a project. In fact, because of her work, we wrote her up as the year’s best artist. In 2019, what was technically her debut album, Love And Compromise, defined her balanced take on the middle ground between pop music and UK-centric Neo-Soul. And in 2020, a mini quarantine release, Isolation Tapes kept the candle lit. But, in 2021, further music from the sunshiny queen would highlight a lot of the inevitable romance and brightness in a year sure to be marked by more positive emotion than last.
GoldLink has been getting after it for more than a half-decade, dropping timeless projects that transcend the high-energy party anthem all the way to the slow crooning romance anthem. And through it all, he’s made himself known – or at least made it known that he knows – that he’s one of the most prolific, dynamic rappers alive. In 2019, Diaspora put all of his genius on display. And in 2021 after a 2020 defined by a few singles, he’s poised to release another game changing album that proves a rapper not need only rap better than anyone else, but do it all with unending authenticity.
There is no one more lyrically dynamic and also no one more socially focused than Chicago’s Noname. The figure of ferocity, social justice, and all around deconstruction and reconstruction of the way society (dis)functions, it may be hard to pull Noname away from more pressing matters long enough for her to pull together her first album since 2018 album of the year, Room 25. But, in the shadow of a 2020 defined by so many social discussions, there’s also a good chance that noname is armed and ready to rock the rap world once again, making music that means more than anyone else is really capable of.
Kind of like Ella Mai, Lucky Daye exploded onto the scene in 2019 with a debut album that turned him into a household name overnight. And though he dropped a Deluxe version to Painted last year, his unendingly detailed genius could flourish even further and bloom even brighter with a sophomore project in 2021. Whe it comes to every scene in music, none shine brighter with a youthful future than R&B, and Lucky Daye, as one of the most unique and acclaimed, could easily assert himself as generational leader of R&B with a continuation of his craft.
The all-in-one Chicago producer-vocalist hit the ground running at the onset of 2020 with debut project, PIECE OF MIND. As a collection of further single releases and features came to fruition through the year, XHRY is looking towards a 2021 with a new project in mind. For the betterment of the R&B scene and how it relates to the self-made and vibrantly experimental, it’s HXRY carrying the Chicago torch of up-and-coming crooners that we would love to see – and hear – something new from. After all, his bubbly, electronically nuanced aesthetic is something changing the guard for expectation in music.
It’s not that Smino didn’t drop in 2020, it’s that we’re always looking for more from the most unique sound in hip-hop. She Already Decided – the mixtape he released last Spring – was one of the most unique projects to come about in 2020. With all of the intrigue and ultimate uniqueness that comes with a Smino project, but all the down-to-Earth nature that makes any Soundcloud-only drop something really for the culture, She Already Decided was album-worthy. But, looking towards a 2021 where he hasn’t dropped a proper releasee since 2018’s NOIR, one from Smino could be the year’s best.
Chicago’s Femdot has one of the most unique flows in the game. Nobody sounds like him, and when it comes down to it, few can really go toe to toe with his penmanship. He’s just a unique talent with a unique sound weaving heavy storylines in and out of party anthems, and a rapper that rangy is something prioritized in the modern scene. His 2019 album, 94 Camry Music was a work of underground perfection, and a 2020 A-Side / B-Side with fellow Chicago wordsmith Saba took the scene by storm. In 2021, a Femdot album would be one of the most unique and necessary.
Raveena’s 2019 debut album, Lucid was one of the most defining albums not only of the year, but also of the future of Neo-Soul music in modern times. A gentle harmony, a strong sense of self confidence, and an unendingly listenable aesthetic made the project a penultimate moment in her career to that point. But, with an incredibly quiet 2020 rightfully focused more on social issues and day-to-day self-happiness, Raveena is poised to return to the limelight in 2021, carrying with her the instrumentally driven and soulfully entrenched R&B wanderlust that has made her one of music’s most elusive names.
Anderson .Paak is the most talented musician alive. He’s at least in the conversation. His albums are explosive deconstruction of musical expectation from any corner of artistry he so effortlessly explores – hip-hop, rap, R&B, soul, rock, jazz, electronic – and his friends that join the ride – from the Free Nationals to Busta Rhymes – are also shown a new side of their range through .Paak’s own. With his albums not only comes dynamic breadth, but also unending emotion and positivity, and if there’s any emotion evoked through music we need in 2021, it’s everything that comes at the hands of .Paak.
A$AP Rocky is one of those artists that takes his time with albums. A perfectionist, a wide-ranging creative mosaic, and when it all comes down to it, just a busy man, Pretty Flacko is always working, but it’s not always on his album. His craft at large – from music to fashion to videography and running his businesses – takes him in a million different directions. But, when he is piecing together his next experiment classic, it always emerges as a keystone albeit polarizing moment for music at large. Testing was his last – and that was in 2018. So, hopefully there’s something new from Rocky in 2021.
DRAM is now Shelley, and Shelly is still as unique, hilarious, talented, and necessary to hip-hop as DRAM as always been. The Virginia Beach enigma is an artist whose definition is always changing. He can rap and sing; he make love songs and anthemic party hits; he can do it all without sounding like anyone who has ever done it before. And somewhere within all that range and creative promise, he somehow hasn’t released a project since 2016 debut album, Big Baby DRAM. The world could use all the lighthearted and emotionally relatable antics that Shelley brings to the table, so hopefully 2021 is the year.
There has been a bit of a renaissance with the 2000’s greats dropping new projects in recent years. Solange put out one of the best albums of 2019. Alicia keys did it in 2020. And as far as 2021 is concerned? We need Miguel. A spotlighting performance at Rihanna’s Fenti fashion show brought him back into the limelight. A feature on Alicia Keys’ Show Me Love from 2020 masterpiece, ALICIA, made us remember why we love him. And a new album wouldn’t only solidify his position as one of the greats, but bring a much needed veteran presence back to the young R&B scene.
ANTI came out a half-decade ago, and it’s amazing to see how much work Rihanna has put into her crafts outside of music since. With her Fenty fashion show coming as one of the highlights of culture and diversity in a very challenging 2020, it’s amazing to think that perhaps her most prominent calendar came again without the release of an album. But 2021 feels right for her return to music. And there could be no project that R&B, hip-hop, and pop music could come together to celebrate more this year than one from Bad Girl RiRi herself. Here’s to hoping.
With one of the most unique, authentic sounds anywhere in music, the UK’s Nao at times doesn’t even sound real. Her natural high-tones and subsequent lows make her one of the rangiest vocalists alive, while her knack at weaving emotion-ridden, relatable discourse in and out of her music makes her a dynamic influence on the power of Neo-Soul at large. One other thing about her: she’s elusive. With her only two albums coming in 2016 and 2018, a new project from her in 2021 would breathe of the kind of emotion and relatability that all of us are looking for after a tough 2020.
There is no one more elusive, yet more necessary to R&B and to Neo-Soul than Daniel Caesar. His 2017 debut, Freudian is inarguably one of the all-time great modern R&B albums. His 2019 sophomore collection, CASE STUDY 01 was a vibrant change of pace towards the experimental corners of where Soul music can go without any sort of stylistic boundaries. And if pattern means anything to artists – which it often does – he’s due for another every-other-year album release. And if that were to happen, there is no one more capable of sending shockwaves through R&B than Daniel Caesar himself.
Summer Walker’s 2019 Over It was one of the most unique and timeless R&B projects to come from a veteran or a newcomer in recent memory. The young soulstress is unendingly talented, evoking emotion and provoking thought with every piece of poetry perfectly breathed into existence. And though in 2020, she dropped an extended release of her debut, looking toward 2021, Summer’s got the opportunity to establish herself as one of the most promising, but legitimately one of the most important names in R&B music at large. Here’s to more drunk mornings crying in the shower to her music. Or is that just us?
Snoh Aalegra exploded onto the scene in 2019 with a long run of single releases towards eventual masterpiece, Ugh, Those Feels Again. In the process, she became a household name whose unparalleled range and iconic presence made her one of the most sought after and unique sounds in R&B and Neo-Soul. Moving into the new year, after having a tour put on hold, and a whole lot of time to work on new music, she could easily use an album to catapult her even further up the R&B ranks. Selfishly, we just want another anthemic album of emotional turmoil to rock to.
SAINt JHN wasn’t supposed to release an album in 2020, but the Brooklyn workhorse – riding the wave of fandom and limelight seen through a combination of continued success and remix blowups – dropped While The World Was Burning. That being said, he’s been working towards a follow-up to debut and sophomore albums, Collection One and Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs for a while now, and his consistency points to anything, it’s that we’ll likely see it in 2021. With SAINt JHN, a few things are guaranteed – that it’ll be high-energy, emotion evoking, and game-changing all at once.
Kojey Radical has emerged as one of the most unique super-creatives in all of music. The fire-spitting, soul-singing, social statement, fashion icon is a figure of creativity and art at its widest range, and his 2019 debut album, Cashmere Tears brought the entirety of that range into focus. With a prolific continuation of single releases and music videos in 2020, he’s poised to make even more moves heading into the new year. And if it could be anything as unique and game changing as Cashmere Tears, a new Kojey album could usher in a new era for the coalescence between hip-hop, Neo-Soul, and art as a whole.
When Ari Lennox released Shea Butter Baby in 2019, it changed the course of her life. It also changed the course of R&B as the incredibly unique DC soulstress became a staple of femininity and strength for music at large. Her debut album was an instant classic. Her work to the point brims with the genus of an established veteran. And her place as sitting queen of the Dreamville takeover ensures that her list of collaborators, producers, and friends is unparalleled. Looking towards a new year, there are few if any artists whose album release would mean more to music.
2019 was the year that JID really established himself as one of the most volatile lyricists in the game. As the headlining star of the acclaimed Revenge of the Dreamers III collection, he is yet to release an album under the banner of promise and expectation that comes with his newly founded position. In 2020, his role in the Spillage Village release, Spillagion again proved his collaborative prowess. But, we need a solo project. It can pull all of his star-studded friends in tow, but a 2021 JID album would mean a lot to the greater hip-hop scene always in search of this generation’s lyrical dynamo.
I’m getting sick of waiting. So is the whole world. Isaiah Rashad has been on this list since before this publication even existed, and he still hasn’t put out a project. But, there’s hope. 2020 saw a slew of single releases from TDE, so at least we know they’re working. From Isaiah, a couple singles under his name got fans excited, but anything other than a proper album to follow up 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, would be an absolute tease. The laid-back Chattanooga wordsmith is one of the most stylistically unique names in hip-hop, and he’s never missed, so when it does happen (if ever), Isaiah’s next project will be monumental.
If there is anyone in music who can bring more artists, more genres, more fans together, it’s KAYTRANADA. And if at any point, coming together is what humanity needs, it’s 2021. The Montreal by way of Haiti tropical house, R&B, and hip-hop mosaic merger has been crafting a new realm of music for years. And with 2019’s BUBBA, he proved that his ability to bring so many talented names with such diverse sounds underneath the umbrella of his irreplicable aesthetic, is what he was born to do. Another album from him and all of his talented friends in 2021 could easily be the year’s most sought-after.
Just as with anyone from TDE, hoping for a new SZA album is always a long shot. But just as with anyone from TDE, a new album would be defining, beautiful, and legendary. It’s been a damn long time since Cntrl hit the airwaves, but a couple singles in 2020 alongside the rest of her Top Dawg compatriots put some hope out there that something new might be due out soon. And from one of the most dominant queens in modern R&B, a new album would be a keystone moment to a scene in constant flux, but never without its sharp respect and admiration for everything SZA has ever done.