It's not easy being an up-and-coming battle rapper.
It's nearly impossible to stand out. If you do manage to get some attention, a tsunami of skeptics will point out your every weak spot. Once your name starts growing, you'll have to walk the tightrope of battle rap politics as leagues fight over you. Then if you lose once, it's over. It's enough to scare off new prospects before they even reach their full potential.
That said, talent typically rises quickly in battle rap. Paired with the right moves and some luck, it's not long before new emcees are getting big opportunities, especially now when the scene is hungry for new voices.
Here are our picks for the most impressive breakout performers from the first six months of 2015. Some are new while others have been around for years and are finally being noticed.
Psycoses is quickly becoming a major problem on the West Coast after three standout performances in a row, the second being his true “breakout.” In KOTD’s GZ, he got a lot of people’s attention when he was the first to clearly beat N Pose, which earned him a shot against RemyD at "Back To Basics 2." There, he out-everything’d Remy, which got him JC at the event’s sequel, and they ended up putting on one of the best battles of the night.
Pretty impressive, but not just because he delivered nine solid rounds in a row. Psycoses has consistently showed an astounding ability to rattle off multi after multi without getting boring. He punches almost every bar, switches his flow and cadence dynamically, and mixes in enough of a humorous element to avoid sounding corny.
Even more importantly, he possesses a skill that far too many emcees lack: breath control. Although they don’t necessarily ruin a performance, gasps for breath tend to take away from the punch; Psycoses evades that pitfall almost entirely. Right when you think he’ll have to stagger a setup to take a breath, he powers through the whole bar seemingly without strain.
There’s little holding Psycoses back at this point, except for the occasional instance of tired wordplay pointed at by seasoned fans. Overall, he’s a promising representative of the West Coast’s cherished multisyllabic style, but spitting things like, “The stuff he brew/Hebrew is real light/Israelite,” cheapens that approach. Still, he’s given KOTD no reason to stop feeding him bigger and bigger names.
Although we haven’t really heard from him since, Gjonaj can correctly claim to have one of the most talked-about PG showings ever. Before it dropped on URL (quickly following a YouTube leak), the battle built a tremendous amount of hype, mostly off the strength of his performance. Now, he’s set to face Born later this month and has already gotten Dizaster’s attention (without asking for it).
Both Gjonaj and Psycoses make a compelling case for not forsaking the style that Dizaster popularized years back, which is probably why many are interested in seeing the three of them battle each other. If he does battle Dizaster in the at-all-near future, that will represent one of the quickest rises in battle rap history.
Assuming Diz largely based his interest on Gjonaj’s PG showing versus Gutta, the enthusiasm is more than understandable. Gutta was great, almost flawlessly heating up through three solid rounds, but Gjonaj was just too much, and everyone noticed. Blackstar (R.I.P.) was known for highly reactive crowds, but it got borderline chaotic when Gjonaj was spitting.
You can’t blame that crowd for losing its shit so frequently; it’s always exciting when a newcomer brings something truly different while still providing plenty of what’s in demand. Gjonaj offers an intellectual, maniacally clever strain of violence in his wordplay and brings plenty of what people consistently want to see: back-to-back punches.
Nobody’s perfect, but some lines work so well that they seem like the best possible rendition of the subject (e.g. “So if by now you’re not a fan / I’ve got holy punches that I Promise Land / So get flagrant, he gon’ let the words die like Aramaic / This left will try your chin and knock you flat the fuck out, try again / But, Christ, the Second Coming if he rise again”).
Pedro has been in the U.K. scene for years, fairly well known as a scrappy freestyling lunatic. What he was rarely known for being, however, was put-together or serious enough to convincingly win a battle.
Nowadays, he has a certain deranged determination and focus to him, which fans began to notice in his battle versus longtime vet Oshea. There, Osh put forth a typically irreverent and endearing display, but he seemed noticeably put off by Pedro’s intensity. Going second, Pedro came out throwing spastic, bizarre haymakers that landed massively more often than not. Who could forget: “It’s mum joke time / Your mum’s got a tattoo of the Umbro sign?”
Although he still engages in markedly less-than-serious clashes like his recent one versus the almost universally derided weirdo that is Michael White, he’s making a name for himself as a character dangerous enough to be taken seriously by opponents like Charron, The Saurus and Tony D. He still sticks to freestyle battles for the most part, but he now seems able to compete at a high level even in the written format he refuses to subscribe to.
How does one explain this kind of shift? Does he “care” more all of a sudden? That seems unlikely. Whether it’s through deliberate effort, luck, or just a lot of experience with drunken freestyle, it’s fun as hell to watch and will hopefully bring the best out of his future opponents.
Another late bloomer, Carter is finally getting his shine as the good-natured non-conformist that he is. Years after emerging in the Grind Time era, he’s settled into a style that bounces unpredictably from friendly, irrelevant bars to absurdist takes on URL-style wordplay.
Carter has created a unique advantage in forcing his opponents to counter his unusual technique. Apparently drawn in by that challenge, Illmaculate gave him a shot that ultimately became his uncontested breakout at KOTD’s "Back To Basics." With Isaac Knox and Joe Cutter, he was merely building momentum for the magnificent triumph that was his “Gnome 5” punchline of the year candidate. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, for God’s sake, catch up.
It is truly a bummer that we didn’t get to see him headline "Back To Basics 2" against Head I.C.E, but hopefully that will still go down and Carter will continue to bless the stage. It’s a completely open question as to who else he should battle, but he’s pretty impossible to criticize without admitting that you’re not open to humor in battle rap. You could say something like: “He stutters sometimes,” but you’d be missing the point.
Has Carter boxed himself in with all of this nonsense? Probably, but he’s also created a void that only he can fill. Regardless, he seems utterly disinterested in making adjustments, especially now that it’s working for him.
Being a Christian battle rapper is generally either going to work out really well or really poorly. So far, it’s set Queens, N.Y. emcee Th3 Saga apart positively, but he’s said he's not fond of the label because he thinks it sells him short. He’s right, and he’s proven it in a major way a couple of times this year.
Until his battle with Prep early in 2015, his reception was mixed at best. There were flashes of extreme promise in his PG and UFF battles, but his demeanor was missing something. Against Prep, he shook the (small) room with renewed confidence and aggression, raking in hundreds of thousands of views shockingly quickly. That gave people less of a reason to doubt him versus Shotgun Suge, and he more than held his own on the big stage.
Against Suge, particularly toward the end of the battle, he seemed to find his voice. Without being overtly violent or vulgar, he proved able to insult and humiliate Suge. He became more and more charismatic and threw Suge off, which only built on the groundwork he had established versus Prep. All of a sudden, Saga was a huge threat.
Forgive me for qualifying what counts as a “breakout” performance once again, but this stuff isn’t as simple as you’d think. Though he was definitely building his buzz in UFF last year, in 2015, we have sort of a one-two punch that overall constitutes the birth of a star: Chess vs. DNA and Chess vs. Brooklyn Carter.
It’s hardly necessary to introduce this entry because you already know who Chess is: the kid who threw up and still arguably beat DNA his first time on a big stage. Although he clearly has some breath-related issues to work out, Chess showed the world his upper echelon level of writing against a just-good-enough DNA and dropped jaws in a heated rivalry versus Brooklyn Carter a week later. In both, his energy and imaginative wordplay are off the charts, and let’s face it: making it debatable when you puked in the first round is impressive in and of itself.
By giving strong performances back to back, Chess has largely eliminated the need to further prove himself. For example, he and Steams are set to battle DNA and K-Shine, whose 2-on-2 resume is rapidly growing. A week later he'll face Rum Nitty at URL's West Coast "Traffic" event.
Part of the reason to have faith in Chess comes down to his age. Call it the “DNA effect” if you’d like, but showing so much promise as a teenager is always going to be impressive. If he can continue to do good work on big stages, he’ll build his buzz the same way DNA did at that age.
“Give him a soda!” is something you may have heard yelled from the crowd in any number of recent battles, and it’s E. Farrell’s increasingly popular catchphrase. The Connecticut battler has amassed a sort of cult following as a result of blending top-notch gun bars with utter lack of believability. It’s an extremely entertaining mix that will have you making the Jaz face whether you want to or not.
After putting in work at iBattle, Farrell got his big break versus reacher extraordinaire DOT, who performed at his usual caliber for the New England crowd. Farrell was a perfect counterpart for that style and outdid DOT pretty much across the board. This allowed him to bypass KOTD's PY and GZ channels to debut on the main stage (although it was still a small room) against Sicarii, where he put on another hilariously bar-heavy show, and then again weeks later versus event organizer Nikiya Osborn at "Back To Basements."
Farrell is the epitome of the “nerdy” ability to craft perfect similes about all forms of flossing: smoking weed, shooting guns, driving expensive cars, spending money, etc. He crafts these lines significantly better than most, and he’s a great example of how battle rap recognizes strong content above all else.
Most importantly, Farrell’s success is a testament to the virtues of not taking oneself seriously. He’s probably not going to shoot you, and he doesn’t want you to think he will. He just wants to show you that he’s better than you at rapping about that stuff, and he’s been right in most of his battles thus far.
This entry is more of an example of a battler cementing herself as a person of interest than having a single “breakout” performance, but Casey Jay is to be commended nonetheless. She’s only had one battle released this year, but she reportedly also gave performance of the night at QOTR’s "Panic Room 3."
Casey was rock solid this year versus Taylor Jay and Ms. Miami (footage coming soon), spinning the second performance into a match-up against vet Don Ladyii at QOTR's upcoming "No Holds Barred 2" in August.
At times during Casey’s material, one gets the sense that she’s holding back. That’s not to say that her content isn’t strong, but that she seems to be harboring her intensity. It turns out that fits for a purpose because her third rounds have been impeccable thus far. It’s an impressive display of strategy for a newcomer; making a lasting impression is a coveted proficiency, and it’s rare to see it in someone just starting out.
Since Casey, like MyVerse, has been noteworthy enough to create a buzz with almost no footage out this year, she’s likely to rise through the ranks even more rapidly as she builds her resume.
Shox The Rebel
Because the U.K. battle world generally has less clearly defined tier divisions, it’s often particularly exciting when someone takes the scene by storm. Shox is an apt example, and he’s even been lucky enough to recently reach a massive American audience in his debut on URL London.
It’s not commonplace for a Don't Flop battle rapper to sound believable while rapping about guns and violence, but that’s also not Shox’s only strength. He quickly proved to have the right stuff lyrically, sounding like Unanymous meets Bigg K, and he put it to use early. His breakout came in his battle against Cracker, where he made it exceedingly unclear who was the rookie and who was the vet. Cracker knew damn well he was getting styled on, and it instantly put Shox on the map.
Juan has had four battles drop on Don’t Flop this year, and they’ve all been worthy of a breakout label. The obvious choice, however, is against Uno Lavoz simply because a teenager (yep, another one) facing an international opponent is a big deal. If that's not enough, watch his easy win in the Top 8 tournament finals.
A lot of Juan’s appeal is in his ability to absolutely son his opponents despite being a 17-year-old kid. You have to wonder how it feels to have a huge crowd of people laugh at you because of the incredibly on-point way a teenager just made fun of you. Dry humor and a calm demeanor go a long way if used correctly, and Juan seems like he was born for that style. He’s already addressed the idea of utilizing more intensity to accentuate his lines, and he is decidedly against it.
It’s an odd choice, but there’s no denying that it’s working. What he’s doing is a lot like what we’ve already seen from guys like Shuffle-T, but even that would be an ill-fitting comparison. To make that connection would be to ignore the nuances of each of their personas, both of which are well-calculated enough to be individually hilarious and downright dangerous in the ring.
As to his international battle specifically, Juan is to be applauded for not being completely overshadowed by Uno Lavoz. Uno is not one to allow his opponents to make off with any of the attention, especially in his second home the UK, but Juan does more than enough to keep the crowd with him. Again, the virtues of not taking oneself too seriously cannot be overstated.
Who did we miss? Leave a name and an explanation in the comments below.