Bobby Carter

Wyclef Jean doesn't get his just due. It was only after The Fugees had the world in their collective palms, and then disbanded, when we got to know his unadulterated abilities as a musician — his first solo album The Carnival was a project equal to (if not greater than) his greatest successes with The Fugees. From there, his focus shifted to discovering and producing stars, stretching all genres in his solo mission, and philanthropic work for his homeland of Haiti.

Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, is willing and able to shape-shift to fit into just about any box you show him — he just won't stay in there for long. Whether fusing his talent for jazz while a bassist with punk legacy act Suicidal Tendencies or as a member of Snoop Dogg's band — maybe running a little too far with a solo here and there — the focus seems to eventually drift his way.

"Classic Man," the 2015 debut single from Nigerian-American MC Jidenna, caught everyone off guard. The song found him teetering between rapping and singing about elegance, politeness and Nat "King" Cole, and the melody felt irresistible. Then there's the look: He rocks thrift-wear tailored to a T. The song eventually went double platinum and earned a Grammy nomination. Jidenna followed it with a few more club bangers before releasing his debut album, The Chief, earlier this year. A tribute to his father, a Nigerian chief, the record is peppered with African rhythms and themes.

The pairing of Tuxedo is a natural feel in person, but highly unlikely on paper. Seattle-based producer Jake One has a who's-who client list, from Rick Ross to 21 Savage — while DJ, singer-songwriter and producer Mayer Hawthorne is a renaissance soul man from Ann Arbor, Michigan. They stealthily debuted three tracks on SoundCloud in 2013 with only a black square stamped "Tuxedo" as the cover art, leaving fans wondering where this new funk was coming from.

Formed in the early 2000s, New Zealand-borne electro-soul purveyor Ladi6 is slowly and surely building a reputation by taking everything that was (and remains) great about '90s soul music and updates it, sprinkling cosmic effects and big synths throughout.

I was, admittedly, thrown for a loop when Gabriel Garzón-Montano told me that he wanted to perform unaccompanied, just him and a piano. The meticulousness of his work is clear on his debut album, Jardin, a three-year creative process in which Gabriel plays most of the instruments, tracking them to two-inch tape, layering its overall sound. Jardin takes its title as an umbrella; fruits, bugs and other plants are the driving metaphors tying together this dense work, which blooms over successive listens.

Here's a fun fact about Noname's Tiny Desk Concert: It almost didn't happen. Around the time of their D.C. stop, she (born Fatimah Warner) and her bandmates got their first dose of tour sickness. Thanks to rest, medicine and our mutual excitement, she made her way into the NPR offices the following day. If there ever was a 'Noname' way of doing things, this is definitely her signature method. It's in the way she's able to muster a smile while performing a heartbreaking tale of abortion. It's those sometimes bleak, melancholy lyrics over brilliant, colorful production.

"There's nothing new under the sun / It's never what you do, but how it's done," Nas rapped on "No Idea's Original."

We all love a good redemption story: We're front and center to watch our heroes get knocked down, and then we cheer for them to triumphantly rebound. What we're witnessing with Shelly Massenburg-Smith — a.k.a. D.R.A.M. — is the culmination of a story marked by resilience and stubborn strength.

BADBADNOTGOOD made a name for itself by reworking songs from the likes of Nas and Ol' Dirty Bastard, eventually catching the attention of Odd Future leader Tyler,

Lots of us try to be cool, but the trick has always been in the subtleties; they're what allow us to walk that thin line between cool and corny. Enter Ro James.

Anthony Hamilton's soul sound was refined in the churches of Charlotte, N.C. Watching the Grammy winner perform, you get the hunch that it's harder for him to keep the soul inside than it is to actually unleash it. What he and his backup singers, The Hamiltones, do would be better classified as a musical purge, with a stage show that can double as couples therapy and church service. Their warm harmonies have the ability to shrink theaters and stadiums, so we knew this intimate setting was perfect for them.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.


KING excels at setting a mood. The group's music conjures an all-encompassing, dreamy, Utopian vibe, rather than a mad dash to assemble a who's-who of writers and producers. From the get-go, KING's instant fan base embraced that approach, and that's where the years-long demand for We Are KING took hold.

For more than 10 years, fans have been drawn to Dutch singer-songwriter Benny Sings' ability to layer R&B, jazz and pop over hip-hop foundations. While it was only a matter of time before he'd play behind the Tiny Desk, we never expected the performance to be his very first in the U.S. This is also where he performed with background vocalist Jennah Bell for the first time.

Rapsody has waited patiently for her time to shine. Through seven solo projects, she's grown as an MC, crafting her own style while developing her thesis in the rap game. True breakthroughs are commonly marked by a pivotal moment, and hers came when she provided the sole rap guest verse on the most talked-about album of 2015, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly.

Teedra Moses is a miracle worker. The Crescent City native has managed to remain near and dear to R&B lovers' hearts despite releasing only one studio album in 11 years. A large part of that oversized adoration is due to the tremendous impact and cult appeal of Moses' debut, Complex Simplicity; the other hook in her lasting allure has been her extraordinarily intimate live performances, which have continued steadily despite a lack of a new album.

If there was a loop on TOKiMONSTA's thick kicks, cowbells and keys in the first sixteen seconds of "Surrender," we could leave it there to flourish. But singer/songwriter Gavin Turek quickly hops in the pocket, elevating the song, and cobbling together a dance-floor gem.

The notion of "doing one thing and doing it well" simply does not compute with Mayer Hawthorne. He's inspired by all things music and has expressed as much influence as possible since his 2009 breakout. During his live show, he's liable to perform anything from Aerosmith to Nancy Wilson.