In a year full of top-tier mainstream albums, 2022 was a challenging time to stay up on indie releases. Independent hip-hop is a goldmine though, and as always it was a pleasure to listen to submissions and scout new artists, discovering fresh talent that deserves to be known. Several indie releases rose to the top and wowed us through, although many more deserve to be on this list. We gave preference to EPs or LPs, although there are a few exceptions to that rule.
Meet Us At The Gate is a showcase of Bungalow Collect’s varied talents and malleability. Each member of the collective contributes with unique vocal style, and flows that match an eclectic beat selection.
Tracks like What Yall Wanna Do and How I’m Feeling and Make Some Room are modern takes on the rap game, with heavy bass, and head-knocking energy. On the other hand, songs such as I Got 2, Is It Ever Enough, and Summer Love are straight vibes. Pulling inspiration from R&B, disco, and jazz, these tracks feature superb vocal variety, and definite dance energy.
New York-based Bungalow Collect is composed of four artists: Zay Suav, Apollo J, Rshad and Marcus Isiah. Suav and Apollo are Brooklyn natives, while Rshad hails from Richmond, VA and Marcus Isiah is from Tucson, AZ. Each member has taken successful solo careers and manifested them into something bigger than the individual. Accomplished through an energetic blend of sounds and dynamic stage presence. Meet Us At The Gate certainly earned its place as one of the year’s top indie releases.
In a year that saw Iso Indies pushing the envelope to embrace the modern hip-hop landscape, Message in The Music feels like a homecoming. A return to the roots that make the Brooklyn duo so special. Oozing with jazz, soul, and precise bars, the project is a boom-bap blueprint. Exclusively produced by in-house producer C-Rxch, Yout and Dillmatic trade fire verses and build vibrant hooks that elevate each track with class.
Iso Indies is comprised of artists Conchez Yout and Dillmatic. The pair have been pushing their unique vibes to NYC audiences since 2008. With a vast, scintillating discography, Iso Indies have experimented with many different styles, from old-school boom bap, to trap, and everything in between.
It’s hard to imagine that we’d add an artist to this list on the merit of two feature verses. But frankly, Brittney Carter is THAT GOOD. And the two tracks she did grace this year left the booth in a body bag. From distinctive vocals to elegant wordplay, Carter embraces the rich tradition of Chicago lyricism and pushes it forward to new heights. While it was a quiet year release-wise through traditional methods, Brittney’s Instagram freestyles kept momentum and anticipation high. We couldn’t be more excited for 2023, which by all signs should be graced by more music from Carter.
A native of Southside Chicago (Evergreen Park to be specific), Brittney Carter approaches beats as if rap is her first language. Her unique cadence, graceful delivery, and the truth found in her writing make each song relatable and honest. Musicians with unique voices are often the ones we relate with most easily. Carter’s vocals are earthy and rich, with intonation that often naturally melds words together, while never sacrificing clarity.
Ajna’s Lifelines shows the power of art as a coping tool. To deal with challenging situations and grieving. Lifelines strikes a listener as just that, a project from a man who has processed his grief and comes out on the other side with hope, self-belief, and strength.
Fall So Fast, Play With My Heart and Protect Me are high points along the way, with Ajna’s clear cadence, and thoughtful writing driving home important lessons on false love, and loyalty. And the title track is a beauty as well. Overall, Lifelines is a wonderful piece of art, and a display of an artist who is more than willing to get vulnerable.
Ajna’s sound is reflective of the rich culture and history of the westside, the grit and hardship of the south, and just a sprinkle of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. This multidimensional identity makes his sound widely relatable outside of its aesthetically pleasing qualities. Ajna’s run of 2022 singles coupled with a dynamic project capped of a prolific year of indie releases.
In a year that saw Q open for Kota the Friend at Chicago Flight Night, rap for Big Sean, and pull an MFnMelo feature; the rapper ended 2022 the way he should. With the attention pointed back on himself. Q has truly separated himself through his work ethic this year. And while features and industry co-signs are an important part of the game, The Trophy Room is his artistic masterpiece.
The EP’s first track, Hall Of Fame might just be the project’s magnum opus, with ridiculous production and important songwriting from Q. His delivery on this joint feels especially reminiscent of early J.Cole, and the production fits that mold too. The 1:45 mark sees a big switch up on the beat, and Joel Q switches up with it. He effortlessly moves from more of an introspective, storytelling style to attack mode.
Joel Q is from the Roseland/West Pullman area of Southside Chicago. He very much fits and expands the mold of some of his cities most celebrated acts. Lyrical, self-aware and poetic, Joel Q creates from a place that is authentic and socially conscious. You can feel his respect for Chicago’s rich hip-hop tradition, and desire to better his community.
It Ain’t All Love infuses elements of soul, jazz and R&B with Clark’s natural golden age tendencies as an emcee. From the melancholy jazz strings of Hold You Down to the bouncing bass lead of Guilty Pleasure , from beginning to end, the project showcases traditionally soulful musical elements with a modern spin. And this runs, as connective tissue, throughout the project, concluding with the gorgeous hook of track 8, Reminisce.
At its core, It Ain’t All Love is a concept album. It clearly outlines the ebbs and flows of love. How love can progress and regress. Its development over time. How it can fade in certain ways and grow in others. Each track has the strength to stand alone as a separate entity. However, as a compilation, they decisively show a relationship’s ability to mature, or crumble over time.
Aside from his undeniable talents as an emcee, Ace Clark is an individual dedicated to his culture. Driven to share his observations and experiences as a black man in America with the world. A proud father and published author, Clark’s book Dear Black Boy provides 75 powerful affirmations to uplift black boys/men, and pave the way for a future filled with self-love.
Decadent, soulful composition paired with Diz’s understated, intentionally messy delivery mark ULTRA.VIOLET as one of the most complete indie hip-hop albums we listened to this year. Production value and lyricism are top notch, and Diz’s presence is eirie, contemplative and approachable, all at the same time. Tracks Fair Weather and Rest have really gained momentum, but it’s the joints like Outta Tune and Who Knows that serve as the engine of the album, and caught our attention.
With every track under 2:30 in length, Diz plays into shrinking attention spans perhaps, but that’s a tired narrative. Rather, he leaps through time and space with an eclectic span of concepts that are linked by soulful production and storytelling precipitated by self-doubt and vice.
Boston emcee Diz delivers lyrics with the vision of a true poet. He is heartfelt, tender and unguarded. He speaks from a place of maturity and percipience that challenge a listener to forget his age, and embrace his wisdom. Recurring topics include struggles with substances, external forces sent to derail success and happiness, and perceived self-contradictions. Above all, Diz personifies the internal struggle that so many of us face with clarity, earnest and heartfelt vulnerability. Translating that power into one of 2022’s lasting indie releases.
In a year that saw some discography reshuffling, Keys Open Doors was able to present his fans with a cohesive EP, drawing inspiration from previously released tracks, and songs that were new to this year. An alumni of our “rising artists” category last year, Keys wowed us once again with this year’s new singles, including Sip N Side and the EP’s title track.
Feel Something features lyricism that is innovative and exciting. In the second verse, Keys raps. “Alright, imagine a place that’s like the opposite of New York/A city that sleeps, you get in the streets or you do sports.” Listening to Keys is like having a laid-back conversation with a friend whose ideas are far more profound than any friend you’ve ever had. Feel Something was featured on Season 2 Episode one of Showtime series Flatbush Misdemeanors.
The next up from the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma, Washington artist Keys Open Doors uses elements of R&B and hip hop to create genre-bending masterpieces. With diverse vocals supplemented by virtuoso layering, superb mixing, and intricate attention to detail, Keys Open Doors has all the elements of a star in the making.
PG County, Maryland rapper Malik Elijah crafted an absolutely delectable album with July’s Detour displaying ability to body a wide variety of beats with style. On SOMETHINGSIHATE Elijah shares a trait that made his project truly standout. “My type of vibe is a mellow & chill/slow with the pace, but I never stay still.” The vibes he creates throughout the album do this exactly, pairing laid-back melodies with big time bounce.
Elijah glides seamlessly through these beats, showing confidence and rapier like lyrical abilities. His technical prowess is awe-inspiring, and drew in the talents of upcoming rappers such Wakai, Marco Plus and Isaac Zale on Detour. With limitless potential, don’t be surprised to see Elijah’s name appear on other variations of our end of year awards.
Malik Elijah’s momentum right now is palpable. From opening for EARTHGANG and Mike Dimes, to featuring in many of the top hip-hop blogs 2022 truly felt like a breakthrough year. On top of that, he gifted us with one of this year’s best indie releases.
Truth Be Told is a self-aware project, that reflects on the past, present and future of one of hip-hop’s most promising young groups. The Los Angeles collective released the fire EP back in April, and followed it up with a series of singles magnifying their individual talents as well as collective.
Truth Be Told begins with the title track, which may be our favorite joint on the project. The mood is set with a hypnotic, driving instrumental mirrored by Jadagrace’s lush layering. Enter lowkey delivery and thoughtful bars touching on circumstances of insecurity and life missteps. Don’t get lulled into the lowkey feel though, the switch up is wild. Midway through, 808s drive in a whole new side to the track which becomes venomous and hard. Risky further demonstrates Swim’s diversity of talents, in a more classic hip-hop sense. This joint is a flow and lyrical exercise, with some truly memorable lines.
The second and third offerings, Tangerine and Tribal are more pop-centric, and energetic, the former really showcasing Jada’s vocal talent, and TJ’s playful, clever writing. The latter is truly cut from the Fike cloth, both in instrumental and intelligence. Bordering on punk-rock, Tribal is the rare kind of sound that is harsh and melodic simultaneously. Swim’s vocal performance on the last verse is heady, and dynamic.
It’s impossible, in one or several words, to define grouptherapy. by genre or subgenre. They are truly genreless, drawing on elements of soul, funk, R&B and hip-hop to create a sound that is diverse, fluid, and vibrant. Think Dominic Fike meets Aminé, but with elements that cannot be categorized because they come from three, distinctive vocal talents.