The sweet spot between the ages of 20 and 29 is usually where we see artists mature and polish their skills, while still holding on to a youthful willingness to experiment and push the limits of the genre. This is where stars are made and career legacies are established.
For the 2019 edition of our annual Best Rappers in Their 20s list, we focused on overall impact, skill, quality, and influence for each artist over the past year.
20. Tierra Whack
As a teenager in Philadelphia, Tierra Whack made a name for herself on the freestyle circuit under the name Dizzle Dizz. But it wasn’t until 2017, when Whack moved back to Philly from Atlanta, that she signed an Interscope deal and worked her way towards her breakout debut LP, Whack World. In lesser hands, the conceit of Whack World would fall apart under a critical microscope.
19. Playboi Carti
Without releasing any official music of his own, Playboi Carti has been impossible to ignore in 2019. Perfecting an impressionistic baby voice flow that pushes the limits of what rap (and the English language in general) can sound like, Carti served as a crucial accent mark on two of the year’s best songs: Tyler, the Creator’s “Earfquake” and Solange’s “Almeda.” Stretching his vocals to bizarre, otherworldly places, he has found a way to make rap music that’s unlike anything we’ve heard before. Most listeners over the age of 25 don’t understand what the hell he’s doing, which is exactly how you know he’s on the right track.
18. Denzel Curry
Denzel Curry has had a career’s worth of ups and downs before his 25th birthday. The 24-year-old from Carol City, Florida, was a young gun in SpaceGhostPurrp’s Raider Klan before the group dissolved. He found some success with early mixtapes like Nostalgic 64 and 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms, but with 2016’s Imperial, he introduced himself as Florida’s next great hope.
17. Joey Badass
In early 2012, by appointment of the gatekeepers, Joey Badass seemed poised to save Real Hip-Hop. The Brooklyn high school student was preternaturally talented, a post-Golden Era classicist with a penchant for lyricism and a predilection for boom-bap. His debut mixtape, 1999, was a few months away, but to his faithful, he had already arrived. Joey hasn’t disappeared since, but his sound has evolved. He’s no longer the ’90s apologist who borrowed beats from seminal producers of the day—Dilla and Doom among them.
16. Vince Staples
Since releasing his last full-length album, FM!, at the tail end of 2018, Vince Staples has continued to make his presence felt, popping up as a featured guest, experimenting with a new show, and extending his run as one of the best follows on Twitter. Let’s not forget, Staples was a part of Dreamville’s No. 1 album, Revenge of the Dreamers III, back in July, making the most of his brief appearance on “Rembrandt… Run It Back.”
15. Young Nudy
Young Nudy has quietly made more memorable projects in the past three years than some rappers put out in a lifetime. Look at the discography: his SlimeBall series, which saw its second and third editions released in 2017 and 2018, is a fascinating look at Nudy’s perspective of the streets; Nudy Land is a demented carnival ride of a mixtape from 2017 that serves as an early-career defining statement; and 2019’s Faded in the Booth and Sli’merre continue his run, while the latter of which is easily one of the best rap projects of the year.
14. YBN Cordae
Not only is YBN Cordae getting love from rap veterans like Dr. Dre and T.I., he also just received a major co-sign from the industry with two Grammy nominations. The young rapper has been turning heads for the past few years, but he really started to find his footing this year, with the release of his debut album, The Lost Boy. The 15-song project, which features guests like Pusha-T, Meek Mill, and Anderson.
13. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie
With a trove of platinum and gold plaques dating back to 2016, New York’s A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie has been one of the most commercially successful rappers of the last few years. He’s also been undeniably influential on the melodic sound that has helped bring his city back to mainstream rap prominence (think Lil Tecca and Lil Tjay). A Boogie’s discography is crammed with irresistible hooks (“My Shit,” “Look Back At It”) as well as some genuinely affecting bars about his Bronx upbringing (“Jungle”) and early career realities (“4 Min Convo”).
12. Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper has had an up-and-down year in 2019, but his impact is still undeniable. In July, he dropped his highly-anticipated debut album, The Big Day, and although it received some criticism from fans because of bubblegum raps about marriage and love, Chano used the project to demonstrate his growth and maturity. Just six years ago, Chance was rhyming about his Xanax addiction on Acid Rap, and now he’s living out his days as a husband and father of two kids.
11. Cardi B
After having a groundbreaking 2018, Cardi B hopped off the fast track to success and decided to take the scenic route. She dropped a few records throughout 2019, including her solo anthem “Press” and the seductive collaboration with Bruno Mars, “Please Me,” but none of her musical releases have created a buzz as meteoric as “Bodak Yellow” or “I Like It.” Of course, that’s mostly due to just how high of a bar she set for herself. While the Bronx rapper has slid a few slots from last year’s list, she’s figured out ways to make sure her presence is still felt, from features on DJ Khaled’s “Wish Wish” to Blueface’s “Thotiana (Remix).”
In an era defined by melody and a trend of artists choosing to eschew technical skill for a looser feel to their songs, Atlanta’s J.I.D stands out as a rapper who loves the act of rapping. Through solo projects like 2017’s The Never Story and 2018’s DiCaprio 2, as well as his rousing contributions to this year’s Dreamville compilation, Revenge of the Dreamers III, he’s shown a gift for knotty, intricate wordplay and nimble, downhill rhyming. As he’s honed his talent, J.I.D has become a sharper songwriter and storyteller, which has manifested on efforts like “Off da Zoinkys,” an impressively uncorny drug PSA, and “Workin Out,” a weary, melodic anthem about how hard work doesn’t always pay off. While he’s capable of tackling weightier topics, his speedy delivery, and quick wit makes him an ideal contributor to raucous crew cuts like “Wells Fargo” and Buddy’s “Link Up.”
9. Lil Baby
Young Thug’s school for extraterrestrial crooners has become increasingly strict in its acceptance, but the graduation rate is clocking in at close to 100%. Near the very top of the class is Lil Baby, who used his Thug-indebted flow and Jeffrey’s co-sign to launch his career into the stratosphere. There was 2018’s Drip Harder, with partner-in-crime Gunna, but in 2019, Baby doesn’t need a co-sign.
It’s always Lil Baby and Gunna, Gunna and Lil Baby. With the duo’s ascent after Drip Harder, it’s easy to forget just how special Gunna’s Drip Season 3 is. Drip or Drown 2 has some serious highlights, too, but with 3, Gunna emerged as an absolute force—both within Atlanta and nationally. The Metro Boomin-backed beats are silky and simple, giving Gunna ample room to flex his vocal chops, using ad-libs to turn melodies into harmonies, instead of merely backing up his rhymes.
7. Lil Uzi Vert
Until we get Eternal Atake, the youths will be cantankerous. But at least we have some new songs to hold us over. Do “Free Uzi” and “Sanguine Paradise” already rank in the upper portion of his catalog? There’s certainly an argument for it. “We be throwin’ money in a spiral,” “Money keep comin’ in, I can’t lose,” “I just made a hundred K, it was quicker than a Vine…” Is there anyone better at talking about money right now than Uzi? The only thing Uzi does better than talk about stacks is to spend them.
6. 21 Savage
At 27 years old, 21 Savage has figured out how to successfully balance authentic street rap with mainstream appeal. His music is a soulful balance of autobiographical anecdotes, vulnerability, and, well, savagery. 21 began his career with a relatively narrow range, but his 2018 album, I am > I was, opened up his scope, showing his ability to express a multitude of experiences and emotions.
5. Megan Thee Stallion
It’s been a great year for an exciting new wave of female rappers, highlighted by the rise of Megan Thee Stallion. The Houston rapper’s May project, Fever, is drenched in sex appeal and confidence, guided by Meg’s skillful control and relentless delivery. Her single “Cash Shit,” featuring another 2019 standout, DaBaby, is one of the best collaborations of the year, which will undoubtedly end up high on everyone’s Best Songs of 2019 lists.
4. Travis Scott
Last summer’s ASTROWORLD (and the ensuing tour) was the crest of Travis Scott’s stardom, a wave big enough for him to coast on into 2019 and maintain height throughout. Travis only dropped one solo song this year—albeit one with enough hype that it damn sure felt like a whole project was releasing—but that’s all he needed to. If there’s one undeniable litmus test for determining who the “it” rapper of the moment is, it’s by gauging how often peers seem to be hitting their line. In 2019, Travis Scott’s phone hardly rested on the hook. Quite simply, there was nary a high-profile rap release that went live without a feature from La Flame tucked somewhere on the tracklist.
3. Tyler, the Creator
Awarding Tyler, the Creator the No. 1 spot on the 2018 iteration of this list, we praised him for carving out his own lane within rap. By building his own empire far away from the fickle whims of the mainstream music industry, and avoiding the pitfalls of chasing every new trend that pops up, Tyler has put himself in a very enviable position. Having attracted a fiercely loyal group of fans who support him in any new artistic direction he chooses to take, he’s largely free to create without the limits of expectation. As a result, we’ve been treated to wildly ambitious works like his 2019 release, IGOR, a freewheeling album that defies traditional song structure conventions as it blurs genre boundaries to give us otherworldly gems like the Playboi Carti-assisted “Earfquake.”
2. Young Thug
For the entirety of Young Thug’s career, he has operated a few steps ahead of mainstream trends. When he first broke through, Thug’s experimental approach to rap and occasionally indecipherable lyrics were often too far left of center to connect with a wide audience. Unorthodox choices like recording a full country-inspired rap project and wearing a dress on an album cover alienated some fans. By 2019, a whole generation of artists—ranging from Gunna and Lil Baby to Lil Nas X—had come up in Thug’s wake and wouldn’t stop gushing about his influence. But he hadn’t achieved the commercial success many had expected of him, and a No. 1 album still eluded him.
DaBaby was snubbed out of a Best New Artist Grammy nomination this year, but let’s be honest: the Charlotte native is easily the best breakout rapper of 2019. He started the year strong with Baby on Baby in March, highlighted by the hit single “Suge,” which showcased his knack for witty metaphors and punchlines. Just six months later, he returned with Kirk, which went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. DaBaby’s husky raps over simple, booming beats arrived at a time when the industry needs them most. While most rookies are blurring the lines between rap and R&B and making melodic music, DaBaby prefers to power through three-minute songs with vicious and raunchy bars.