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Top Of The Year: OKP's 14 Artists To Watch In 2014

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Yesterday was January 15th, 2014. Which means we have now forever crossed that magical line at which you no longer have to say "Happy New Year" to fools you haven't seen for a few minutes or a few months. It's also well past time to say a definitive "FOH" to 2013 and seriously get down to the business of ringin' in the new-new. In that spirit, Okayplayer presents our Top 14 Artists to Watch: the young upstarts who, in our hearts ,we most want to hear new music from this year--and in our heads know to expect big things from. Read on to meet the most anticipated. If you're a regular reader of our First Look Friday column, you may already be superfans for some of these new mutants, while some you may not have revealed their powers to the world at large quite yet. If not, give them a minute--the year is still young.

1. Moses Sumney.

If you've heard the name, you already know we ride for this L.A. artiste. In fact, we;ve have been fans at least since he started posting up covers and compositions in his trademark voice--supermelodical and spare to the edge of acapella--on soundcloud. But the video for "Replaceable" a brilliant bit of electroacoustic falsetto soul that is best described as Laurie Anderson meets Blood Orange--sealed the deal. Watch it again above and if you are still standing after that, his performance of "Everlasting Sigh" live at The Mayan Theatre--which is more like a Vampire Weekend song performed by Bobby McFerrin--will knock you over with a feather.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

2. Kelela.

In a word, duh. Kelela made our Best Songs of 2013 with "Enemy" and her mixtape made our Best Mixtapes of 2013 just for living. Her Kingdom collabo "Bank Head" made Okayfuture's year and her digital torch song "Go All Night" made Solange Knowles' Saint Heron compilation, putting her officially at the cool kids' table, if there was any doubt. There shouldn't be; Kelela has the voice, the ferocity, the unique timeshifting ability to recall 90s r&b at its best on the most futuristic of future soul freakouts, and clearly the team around her to own 2014, should she so choose.


3. Sango. Young midwestern producer Kai Wright AKA Sango Beats was already one of our favorite beatfreaks on the scene. Along with Atu, Kaytranada and Ta-Ku, he is one of the producers who defined the sound of the cloud in 2013; a glitchy post-Dilla knock which leans heavy on the flange and then goes heavy on the lean. That was before he busted our heads open this very week with "Pa'Mala" a trap-influenced take on bachata that ventures into totally new tropical waters; recalling Buraka Som Sistema's Ku-bass sound or a cypernetic response to Rita Indiana's mutant merengue, "Pa'Mala" feels like the first shot of what we hope is a whole new rhythm assault of Sango Beats.

4. Liam Bailey. Bailey has been a bubbler on the UK scene since at least 2011, meriting multiple LargeUps for his rocksteady throwback soul, particularly his note perfect chestnut "Soon Come" with original nutter Shy FX. Tunes like "When will They Learn" and "Please Love Me" show beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bailey is no one hit wonder; his voice is clearly too strong in it's fragility to be contained by facile genre classifications. In fact, word on the lane is that he may be working on a more straight ahead soul album project with none other than superproducer Salaam Remi of Nas, Miguel, Fugees, and Amy Winehouse fame. Actually that was the word in Salaam's studio when we got the chance to sit down with him for a preview of the Mack Wilds album. To see what Salaam's touch can do for a young artist on the make, just look what he's done for the careers of Wilds and Hiatus Kaiyote this past year, all while loading up hits in the chamber for his own project. When Salaam gets this voice over one of his signature drum songs? Gone to the world.

5. SZA.

Duh twice. We were in love with SZA's spacey singsong and wavy grooves long before she became the "first lady of TDE" or whatever but sharing a studio with the most talented stable of young gamechangers around (Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, Jay Rock) all but ensures that SZA will be working with the best and getting the push her music deserves. Her proper debut is all but guaranteed to be a highlight of 2014--as long as it is indeed among the six albums that Top Dawg Ent is threatening to drop this calendar year (!)

6. Kaytranada. Another standout from the soundcloud pack who caught our attention with interesting flips and remixes, Montreal's Kaytranada then quickly dropped a package of his original productions into the internet's open ear hole. His 8-track EP/beat tape/calling card Kaytra Tododropped back in February of last year via our friends at Jakarta records. But it was his infectiously soulful club track "At All" (and it's video, which turned the standard video chick dynamics literally on its head when Kaytra is hoisted in the air by a coterie of musclebound female bodybuilders) that made the transition from beat-cat to full-fledged artist complete. While "At All" proved that his ear for chops and odd harmonics can make killer stand alone tracks--not just rhythmic beds for cats like JMSN to write to--only Kaytranada knows where he'll swerve within the lane he's cleared for himself in 2014. Don't let him get in your blind spot or it might be a smash up.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

7. Daley.

Again, we knew UKplayer Daley was a sublime voice and a singular look (more on his hair care regimen soon) in soul music for like, two years minimum. But when he started booking studio sessions with Pharrell and Questlove, we knew there was a sea-change happening; a clear case where the outstanding talent and charisma were there all along, just waiting for the right team to assemble around it and make magic. Heading into 2014, the team is strong and subtly stellar tracks like "Look Up" have positioned Daley as the artist most likely to be parring with Miguel and Robin Thicke in the deep end of the Grammy pool, not to mention the pop charts.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

8. King avriel.

Young in years, singer King avriel already making a sort of comeback after a few years off (possibly to finish high school??) making quite a splash with her last several tunes, and picking up more fans with each new release. A prolific writer for one so young, she has already established a signature move in her innovative expansions on familiar jams; making "Prelude" (stream below) a deeper exploration of the female lead character of Kendrick's "Keisha's Song" and flipping Drake's "No New Friends" motto into the more complex, bittersweet melodic line I would say no new friends but I’ve outgrown my old ones on "Failed Messiah." With a haunting voice that at times suggests a younger Beyoncé (at her most gothic), avriel is more willing to play with not only darker moods but the beautiful harmonic possibilities of chopping and shifting the soul in her voice.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

9. Sampha.

As with many singers who make their names singing the memorable hooks of bigger artists' records (see below Sam Smith and Majid Jordan) Sampha is that voice that made you shazam Drake's "Too Much" and SBTRKT's "Hold On." But his EP releases and acoustic session have firmly established that he is more than a crooner of refrains or provider of haunting vocal textures for your favorite producer to mold; he is a sonic auteur in his own right. With the attention his cameos have focused on him, there's no doubt that 2014 will provide him with a broader canvas on which to express himself. Half the fun of listening to tracks like "Indecision" (below) is imaging what sort of colors he'll see on it.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

10. Roman GianArthur.

There is a gentle hand that guides all things in Atlanta’s now pervasive Wondaland crew. Some might think that to be the delicate hand of its figurehead and face Miss Janelle Monáe. However we contend that hand to be of one Mr. Roman GianArthur, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who's managed to keep himself out of the public eye, but very much in their ear. Lending his hand first to Janelle’s “Overture” off her groundbreaking sophomore debut The ArchAndroid, he’s since become an integral and definitive contributor to each of that promising southern clique’s recordings, including an appearance on fellow androids Deep Cotton’s Runaway Radio Fixtape. While his solo releases remain few, no doubt the best one-off of the year goes to Roman with his absolutely glistening “I-69.” When we find so many artists who say far less with more complicated sounds, its the simplicity of his funk melded into a pop framework that makes his brand among the most compelling of the bunch. His I-69 EP will hopefully be available sooner than later (we’ll be sure to keep you posted) but you can get a taste of what Miss Monáe has branded “genius” with Roman’s lead-off single below.

Listen to Majid Jordan's 'afterhours' EP on First Look Friday.

11. Majid Jordan.

Majid Jordan may be the most compelling by-product of Drizzy’s Toronto-based OVO clique since the rapper himself proved indispensable to hip-hop at large. Comprising singer/producer Majid Al-Maskati and multi-instrumentalist/producer Jordan Ullman, the group’s sound melds the clean ultra-chic Lynn-drum boogie of yesteryear with the grit and swank of more contemporary r&b. This recent OKP First Look was featured most famously on Drake’s “Hold On” and managed to quietly --but strongly-- drop their debut EP afterhours, which was hands down one of the most dynamic releases of last year, strutting everything from true-funk favorite “Hold Tight” to the spaced-out alt-r&bibbity of the closer “Chill Pad Deluxe.” Whatever 2014’s got in store for this talented north-of-the-border tandem of producers, its gonna be heavy. If you doubt, give their debut EP afterhours a second look below.

12. Sam Smith.

Sam Smith (another recent First Look) has lended his splendid falsetto to some of the past year’s biggest smashes. Immortalized as the voice of Disclosure’s runaway summer hit “Latch,” not to mention the endless phased boogie of “Together,” one of last year’s most historic collabs (featuring the aforementioned kings of UK EDM-hood and “The Hitmaker” himself Nile Rodgers). If his latest club-ready scued R&B offering “Money On Mind” is any clue as to what we can expect, Sam’s debut solo LP In The Lonely Hour --slated for a May 26th release-- is sure to drop with some weight behind it. You can check out Smith’s Sin City shenanigans in the visuals for “Money On Mind” above.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

13. Isaiah Rashad.

What more can we say: Top Dawg. Isaiah Rashad is the most fully-loaded young gunner in the hottest new rap label on the planet. No one is saying he is the next Kendrick (let alone the next Nas). But Rashad's confident drawl (and his script-selection game for moody, jazzy beats to spit on, which is set on a hundred thousand million) has clearly made his upcoming debut one of the most anticipated rap albums of the year. Having someone like SZA to break up your bars doesn't hurt either (bear witness below with "Ronnie Drake.")

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

14. Falcons.

Falcons is fittin to be in 2014 what Baauer was the year before. Though mostly known for his infinitely bump-able chops and remixes, the young L.A. beatmaker is making a name for himself on the even playing field of soundcloud, and getting attention from all the right places (Mad Decent for one--and a post on their blog is often only a few keystrokes away from being an official release on MD or another Diplo-related imprint). With the buzz building (and a Boiler Room set already on his resume) it was only a matter of time until he moved into more original material. His recent EP Birdcall (stream the sampler below) seems to be that move, chopping his early 2000s nostalgia remix material into ever finer beats like the brilliant bootyshake of "Be Quiet," which is practically ready for it's Hype Williams-directed video. Time to take flight.

Honorable Mentions: Ta-Ku, Petit Noir, Hawk House, Kwabs.