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: King Mez, Dr. Dre’s Compton collaborator; Elle King, the singer behind the current Top Alternative Songs chart-topper; Roman GianArthur, the R&B multi-instrumentalist behind a unique Radiohead covers EP and more.
Elle King | Photo: Dustin Cohen
Sounds Like: If Wanda Jackson had been born in 1989, sandpaper growl and brazen lyrical sensibilities fiercely intact
For Fans of: Nikki Lane, ZZ Ward, Valerie June
Why You Should Pay Attention: She’s the third woman to have a single reach Number One on the Alternative charts (following in the footsteps of Lorde and Tracy Bonham). “Ex’s & Oh’s” — from her February debut Love Stuff — is enjoying a third week at the peak position almost a year from its initial release, but the slow climb has been worth it. The music video has racked up over five million views, she’s cracked the Top 40 and her badass rockabilly antics made a fan out of Reese Witherspoon, who asked King to contribute a couple songs to theHot Pursuit soundtrack. Producers Jeff Bhasker, Mark Ronson and Patrick Carney have all worked to harness the irresistible charm of the modern day Janis Martin. She even got to meet with her hero, Wanda Jackson, at a studio in Tennessee a few weeks ago — keep your eyes peeled for a possible collaboration. “I got to spend the whole day playing guitar for her. It was the craziest experience,” says King. “She told me I need to act like a lady. She heard me doing a cover of hers, closed her eyes and said that I sounded exactly like her.”
She Says: “I started with the guitar around 12 years old but didn’t learn the banjo until I was about 18 or 19. Like most things in life, it started with a cute boy. He was playing a banjo, and I obsessed over it and taught myself how to play. Now I’m glad I play the banjo.” Though full of Southern spit, King spent her early days performing at open mic nights around Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I learned that you could get free beer, even if you’re underage, if you’re playing a show. And so I started playing shows as often as I possibly could. I was 15!”
Hear for Yourself: The foul-mouthed and wily “America’s Sweetheart” is a pop-infused killer that epitomizes her sassy love-’em-and-leave-’em style: “They say I’m too loud for this town,” she sings, “so I lit a match and burned it down.” Marielle Anas
King Mez | Photo: Christopher Parsons
Sounds Like: Coast-free hip-hop with thickly tangled flows and tempos that switch seamlessly
For Fans of: Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Eminem
Why You Should Pay Attention: With three scene-stealing tracks on Dr. Dre’s highly anticipated Compton, King Mez, the 25-year-old MC from Raleigh, North Carolina, appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Born Morris W. Ricks II, Mez has no famous cousins or viral Internet buzz but has been quietly making waves for two years. Big Pooh from Little Brother connected him with Aftermath A&R Tyhiem Cannon during a trip to Cali and, days later, Mez found himself in the middle of a large group of older and more experienced writers. His skills promptly earned him studio time with Dr. Dre, a consulting gig on the Compton project and, ultimately, rhyming alongside both Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg on the Number Two album in the country. Not bad for someone’s first time out. “I was just talking to my brother about that the other day,” he says, “and I don’t even know how to put those feelings into words.”
He Says: “I think it will take some time for me to understand the magnitude of what that means,” Mez says about being on Compton. “It’s like a dream right now. . . . I never knew that I had the talent to write for another person, but that was my way in and it also helped me evolve as an artist. I went from solely focusing on my own perspective to imagining that I was Dre and trying to figure out what he would say. [The project was] 11 months of almost working every day, man. I tell you, I learned so much.” Mez shows up on Compton’s “Darkside/Gone” with a verse that begins “I ain’t never been a gangsta.” Says Mez, “They say, ‘You so talented, you could’ve been made a hit if you rapped about fuckin’ bitches and gettin’ money. You would’ve been platinum!’ So I can be viewed as an oddball to some for being myself — but they are really the weirdos to me.”
Hear for Yourself: King Mez blew through an amazing freestyle on Dr Dre’s Beats One Radio show. D Watkins
Melanie Martinez | Photo: Catie Laffoon
Sounds Like: Twisted lullabies about love, danger and madness.
For Fans of: “Coin-Operated Boy”-era Dresden Dolls, Lana Del Rey, Fisher Price xylophones
Why You Should Pay Attention: Martinez arrived on the national stage as a contestant on the third season of The Voice — a member of Team Adam, she came in sixth. In 2014, she released the glittering tale of domestic strife “Dollhouse,” her first collaboration with Kinetics and One Love, the songwriting duo who co-wrote B.o.B.’s Number Two smash “Airplanes.” “It was like a magic moment — I’ve never connected with anyone as far as co-writing. I was used to writing in my bathroom by myself in Long Island,” Martinez says. Martinez’s debut Cry Baby, which came out in August, is one of the year’s most fully realized pop albums, with eerie hooks and beats that nod to her father’s hip-hop fandom. The liner notes are a storybook, with each song vividly illustrated by artist Chloe Tersigni. Martinez’s candy-coated aesthetic, which is on full display in her eye-popping music videos and extends to her heavy use of toy instruments, makes her breathy, metaphor-rich singing about toxic relationships and loneliness more arresting.
She Says: “I wanted to use things that reminded me of my childhood [for the songs’] themes, but use stuff I was going through as an adult for the stories behind the songs. Eventually, I realized that the album was going to be called Cry Baby. I was called ‘crybaby’ for my entire life, and was made fun of for taking things too personally and being very emotional. This album was a way to really embrace a term that I thought was an insult for so long. I’ve embraced it and taken on this character — the album is about half stuff that happened to me, and half whimsical fairytale.”
Hear for Yourself: The bass-heavy “Soap” turns the old punishment for swearing into a rumination on feeling awkward in front of a new crush. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: Lo-fi teenage symphonies to the great unknown, with catchy hooks and strikingly personal lyrics
For Fans of: Leonard Cohen lyrics, Beach Boys harmonies, Guided by Voices production
Why You Should Pay Attention: 23-year-old Virginia native Will Toledo wrote most of the songs on the stunning Teens of Style in college, recording in his dorm whenever his roommates were out and uploading the results to Bandcamp. “It was just sort of explosions in the dark,” he says. “I was always hoping that the stars would align and I would get on board with a label, but nothing really connected.” That changed as his music slowly gained a diehard cult of young, web-savvy fans. This year, Matador Records took note: Toledo signed to the indie powerhouse, put together a new band and re-recorded his best songs for Teens of Style. Plus he’s already got enough material banked for a second album,Teens of Denial, due in 2016.
He Says: “Times To Die,” a sweeping meditation on religion and the meaning of life, developed from an early fragment titled “Fuck Merge Records,” which Toledo wrote after he tried and failed to submit his music to the North Carolina label at age 19. “The chorus was ‘No unsolicited demos, no unsolicited demos,'” Toledo says with a sheepish grin. “Obviously I have a greater appreciation of why that’s a policy now, but I was just a kid at the time, and I wanted a place to send my demos.”
Hear For Yourself: “Something Soon” turns family drama into pulse-racing bedroom pop. Simon Vozick-Levinson
Prof | Photo: Colton Otte
Sounds Like: A perverted Macklemore from a parallel universe with a fixation on debauchery and an ear for a pop hook.
For Fans of: Atmosphere, Tech N9ne, waking up covered in someone else’s puke
Why You Should Pay Attention: The raunchy Minneapolis rapper has been building up a local fanbase since 2007, putting out a half-dozen underground releases, selling out high-energy shows and earning a hard-partying reputation. In 2013 he signed with Rhymesayers Entertainment, the indie label that put Minnesota hip-hop on the map. Two years later, his debut for the label, Liability, is finally set for release, and it’s Prof’s most engaging set to date, including guest spots from Waka Flocka Flame and Petey Pablo.
He Says: “No one knows shit about how the business works now. You try to make money off a pair of fucking socks or a shot glass at your merch table. I’m kind of a hater and I’m trying to fill a lane of what I see is missing. No matter if you want to pick a cat up and swing it around by its hind legs or if you want to serenade a chick or you just want to cry to your dad about your drug habit, I got music for that. I’m like your asshole, ugly, drunk uncle and my favorite thing is to point at things and whisper bad words. In the past I’ve been a war hero and a hand model. I’ve got the strongest hands in the Midwest, but my focus isn’t on hand strength right now, it’s on rapping.”
Hear for Yourself: “Bar Breaker” has an electro-gelatinous beat from Aesop Rock and a manic rant from Prof himself. Keith Harris
Roman GianArthur | Photo: Sherwin Dyer
Sounds Like: A secret late-night Radiohead jam at Paisley Park
For Fans of: Miguel, D’Angelo, Janelle Monáe
Why You Should Pay Attention: Dig into the credits for Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturistic adventures The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, and Roman GianArthur’s imprint — a mix of influences ranging from Stevie Wonder to Ennio Morricone — reveals itself. A key member of Monáe’s Warhol-esque Wondaland Arts Society, the formidable vocalist, producer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist dropped a swanky verse on Jidenna’s viral “Classic Man” and helped sculpt this year’s Wondaland Presents: The Eephus EP. Now GianArthur’s sensitive rocker aura is finally front-and-center on OK Lady, a six-song EP of Radiohead covers delivered through a D’Angelo filter. GianArthur’s introduction to the British art-rockers was during his studies at Wake Forest. A friend from his a capella group played him OK Computer, and “Paranoid Android” immediately registered. “I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?'” he recalls. “That was the moment that I fell in love with Radiohead.” In 2012, GianArthur was learning the guitar via the video game Rocksmith, and the first song he mastered was “High and Dry.” After a deep D’Angelo discussion with Wondaland bandmate Chuck Lightning, the idea to fuse the two artists’ styles crystallized. His version of “High and Dry” is slowed down to a meditative crawl and pairs elegantly with patches of Voodoo‘s “Send It On.” GianArthur says he has sold about 500 copies of OK Lady demos hand-to-hand before the EP’s official release — currently available for free.
He Says: “Thom Yorke’s falsetto, the way he sings, it has a soulful thing to it. I don’t know if it’s the enunciation or the tone of his voice, but when he wails, it’s a different kind of soul that I hadn’t seen before — but I recognized it. The rhythm, man. You can hear it. You can listen to The King of Limbs and hear it really prominently. The way they play the drums, you can tell they understand something about how to move your body. It’s not locked into the stereotypical rock pocket. Soul recognize soul.
“The music I’m working on now is more like ‘well’ music. What water was D’Angelo drinking? What water was Radiohead drinking? More specifically, what was Jimi Hendrix drinking? What water was James Brown drinking? The greatest artists, they pull from the same water. They don’t just take from whoever was next in line. They go back to wherever the genesis was — as far back as they can. That’s what this is.”
Hear for Yourself: Monáe jumps into the mix for a “No Surprises” duet. Reed Fischer
Empress Of | Photo: Tonje Thilesen
Sounds Like: An immersive, emotional, trippy dance party
For Fans of: Björk, Kimbra, Blood Orange
Why You Should Pay Attention: Lorely Rodriguez, a.k.a. Empress Of, has solidified a reputation as an original electropop voice with her catchy, textured debut Me. To make the LP, Rodriguez ditched NYC and lived in a friend’s home in Mexico to write: “I just had to detach myself from regular life and just be so obsessed with writing it,” she says. For the album, Rodriguez wrote, produced and played every instrument, with the exception of her vocals, which were recorded at the legendary Electric Lady Studios. “I wanted them to be really strong,” she says. “I wanted someone to be there to pull performances out of me.” The final product is as diverse as the music she grew up listening to — from Celia Cruz to Britney Spears to Björk.
She Says: “I really love how everyone is calling it a pop record. I don’t really think of it as pop music but the fact that other people think of it as pop music makes me think that pop music can change into something that’s a little more than the norm. . . . I made a record that I would want to hear even if I didn’t make it. I think that there’s a lot in there to take from that record about how people forget to love themselves, put themselves first and put themselves as the most important. I think Me reminds you, the listener, that they are the most important person in their life. Whatever shit you’re going through is secondary to you.”
Hear for Yourself: Single “Water Water” shimmers and throbs like post-dubstep Kate Bush. Brittany Spanos
Bryson Tiller | Photo: RoleXX
Sounds Like: Getting throwed and whispering sweet nothings to your best friend’s girl
For Fans of: Jeremih, Ty Dolla $ign, Tory Lanez
Why You Should Pay Attention: “I got the trap and the soul. I’m not just R&B, no no,” sings Bryson Tiller on “Don’t Worry/Molly,” one of the cuts on his heavily trafficked SoundCloud account. The Louisville, Kentucky artist has developed his own hybrid of hip-hop-influenced R&B that he calls “Trapsoul,” the result of years working on music in his bedroom and recording tracks on his Compaq PC. (He plans to upgrade to a MacBook soon). Last fall, he dropped “Don’t,” which has since clocked 2 million YouTube views and caught the attention of noted tastemaker Drake. Instagram photos of Drake and Tiller partying together led to speculation that Tiller was affiliated with OVO. Instead, after a major-label bidding war, Tiller opted to go with RCA Records. “I talked to ’40’ [Shebib, Drake’s producer] about it before we actually signed, and told him about the deal. He told me, ‘That’s one of the best deals I’ve heard in a while.’ He actually advised me that I should take it.” Timbaland is also a supporter: He flew Tiller to Miami to work on new material, some of which will appear on his October 2nd debut, T R A P S O U L.
He Says: Tiller didn’t grow up practicing in church or at school, but instead simply got inspired to make music in his bedroom. “I was listening to a lot of Omarion and I just mimicked him singing. I also mimicked Michael Jackson a lot,” he says. “Maybe I was just born with a little bit of vocals or natural talent, but I feel like I taught myself. I just started taking vocal lessons to just work on my breathing, my vowels and stuff. I’ve been working with Nick Cooper, and that’s been helping a lot,” says Tiller, referring to the vocal coach who has appeared on American Idol and worked with Nicki Minaj and others. “I’m trying to get better at singing. I just want to be great vocally on stage so I can give fans a real show, like Jazmine Sullivan does.”
Hear for Yourself: On “Don’t,” Tiller navigates the nocturnal haze of downtown Los Angeles. Mosi Reeves
Jay Cosmic | Photo: Adam McNulty
Sounds Like: A thunderstorm descending upon an unsuspecting EDM fest
For Fans of: Blasterjaxx, Headhunterz, the big single’s hardest remix
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jay Cosmic doesn’t have much DJ’ing experience — this year’s Tomorrowland was one of his first high-profile gigs — but that hasn’t stopped headliners like David Guetta and Afrojack from spinning his tracks. The 21-year-old from Manchester, England became obsessed with dance music when his dad gave him a trance compilation around the time of his 12th birthday, and he took to producing the following year. Back then he tried to make happy hardcore and Cascada-influenced Euro-schlock. Now, he’s taking over main stages with big tunes that are both pummeling and melodic. His remix of Dvbbs and Bourgeous’ “Tsunami” uses hardstyle fallout sirens to channel the high-BPM hits of his youth, and his latest track, “The Tunnel,” is buttressed with some of the biggest, most ominous kick drums of the year. “It’s like dark big-room,” Cosmic says of the latter. “It’s much more England-inspired, because everything here seems to be much more underground-based.”
He Says: Cosmic wants fans — especially those who wish to become DJs — to understand the difference between “hungry” and “thirsty.” “I get messages from people who have just started making music, and they want to get a cheat code to become famous and be Hardwell,” he says. “Nobody for the past year has messaged me like I used to message people and said, ‘Hey, how do you make this sound?’ or, ‘How do you do this with reverb?'”
Hear for Yourself: “The Tunnel” takes Green Velvet’s rave tour group through a claustrophobic detour into the dank infrastructure below the club. Nick Murray
Wand | Photo: Romain Peutat
Sounds Like: Fuzzed-out psych with a dash of glam
For Fans of: Ty Segall, Tame Impala, T. Rex
Why You Should Pay Attention: You might know Wand leader Cory Hanson from his work with West Coast distortion enthusiasts like Mikal Cronin and Meatbodies. As restless as the other bands in the Los Angeles garage rock constellation (longtime friend Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, White Fence), Wand is releasing two albums this year, the furious punk workout Golem in March and this month’s spacey, proggy, psych detour 1000 Days. While they’ve already caught the attention of veteran subterranean rock labels In the Red and Drag City (who, respectively, are putting out the LPs), Henry Rollins has also taken note, playing the band on his KCRW radio show.
They Say: “We hopped on a plane at 7 in the morning [from Portugal] to Amsterdam,” says Hanson from the middle of a European tour. “On the plane, there was a Portuguese choir that the flight attendant asked to sing a song. We were all sleeping and woke up to a choir sitting in seats throughout the entire plane singing this beautiful song, and we all thought we had died on the plane or that it had crashed and we were in some new alternate limbo or heaven and hell. It was a really intense, kind of exhilarating day.”
Hear for Yourself: “Dungeon Dropper” is a glitter-rock cruncher. Shara Sprecher