There’s been a certain amount of hemming and hawing about how South by Southwest Music this year lacks starpower, but I’m not buying it. There are plenty of artists that folks will line up and camp out for, but this year most of them fall into the hip-hop realm. I’m not even talking about the rumored Kanye show at Stubb’s. J. Cole’s Dreamville takeover at ACL Live will draw huge crowds as will any party or showcase that includes Joey Bada$$ or Big Sean. Ghostface Killah and Run the Jewels will be hot tickets as will Action Bronson, 2 Chainz and a slew of Odd Future alums including Casey Veggies and Earl Sweatshirt. Texas heavyweights, Z-Ro, Trae the Truth, Doughbeezy and G.R.I.T. Boys will also be in the house. The caliber of hip-hop artists coming into town this year is so high that established radio stars like Wiz Khalifa and B.o.B. almost seem like asides and I haven’t even mentioned indie lifers like the Rhymesayers crew or legends like Nas and the 30 other folks I’m probably forgetting to mention.
Oh yeah, and, in case you missed it Snoop Dogg is keynoting the fest. Snoop isn’t the most exciting rapper playing the fest, but I don’t hate the choice, I admire the way Snoop has continually reinvented himself over the past few years. Snoop Lion and Snoopzilla made great blog joke fodder, but “Reincarnation” and “7 Days of Funk” the projects that came out under Snoop’s respective alter egos were both quite interesting. Let’s keep in mind that this is an artist who could easily live out the rest of his career playing his Doggy Dog hits.
Among the up and coming artists there are a mess of incredibly exciting new voices. Pell, Dizzy Wright, Little Simz, Kevin Gates and countless others. I’ve created a sampler Spotify playlist of some of my favorite SXSW hip-hop tracks and here’s a roundup of a sweet sixteen rappers who will be making noise at the 2015 fest.
J. Cole. Part of the new generation of hip-hop/R&B crossover artists who sing as well as they rap, Cole seamlessly fuses the two with melodic phrasing creeping into his raps and choruses that occasionally slip into spoken word. His 2014 album “Forest Hills Drive” was an introspective self-portrait with the point of view shifting between past, present and future in a way that was haunting, illuminating and occasionally ominous. (Time TBA Saturday, March 21, ACL Live)
Ghostface Killah with Badbadnotgood. Ghost, the heart and soul of the Wu-Tang Clan, is famous for emotional rhymes that lay it all on the line. He’s a can’t-miss performer on his own. Backing tracks from the jazzy Toronto instrumental trio Badbadnotgood up the ante to infinity. The new collaborative album “Sour Soul” feels like a revelation. If Danny Brown shows up to do his cameo on “Six Degrees,” all the minds will be lost. (1 a.m. Friday, Monster Energy Outbreak House. With Raekwon, 1:20 a.m. Saturday, March 21, the Belmont)
Little Simz.The young British rhyme slinger alternates between a wicked spitfire flow and smooth heart-tugging hooks she sings herself. Her supporters include Jay-Z, who put out one of her mixtapes and Schoolboy Q who took her on his “Oxymoron” tour. Midnight Weds., Latitude 30. 10:45 p.m. Thu., Austin Music Hall.
Big Sean. The G.O.O.D. Music rapper and Kanye West protege has been on a slow burn rise for the last several years. His masterful new album “Dark Sky Paradise” lit the Internet on fire last month. Deeply personal but broadly relatable songs like “One Man Can Change the World” feel vitally important. He’s set up to skyrocket out of this year’s fest the same way Kendrick Lamar did in 2013, making his shows the hottest ticket in town. (8 p.m. Friday, MTVu Woodie Awards, Statesman parking lot)
Dizzy Wright: On his astonishingly good new track “Train Your Mind,” the 24-year-old Vegas-based rapper spins third eye wisdom both esoteric and profound over a ridiculously catchy hook. Armed with a mission to “spread positivity and empowerment” and a laid-back, lyrical flow, his rapid rise signals a new dawn in the golden age of hip-hop.
Doughbeezy. The South East Beast carries forth the rich tradition of Texas rap, reppin’ hard for H-Town.
Pell. The NOLA emcee laces his rhymes with the same kind of syrupy Southern harmonies that made Outkast superstars.
Tkay Maidza. The 18-year-old accidental phenom was born in Zimbabwe but currently lives in Australia. On a whim, she started messing around with tracks in the studio of her father, a guitarist and drummer, and came up with her debut mixtape “Switch Tape.” When she dropped it on SoundCloud last year, it went viral almost immediately, propelled by a quick-witted flow and knack for catchy hooks that work well over everything from skittering electronic beats to futuristic R&B. She took a leave from university and has been selling out clubs in her home country ever since. (11 p.m. Saturday, March 21, Cedar St. Courtyard)
Vic Mensa. The 21-yr-old emcee who’s headlining the Chicago Made showcase was underwhelming in his early afternoon Austin City Limits Music Festival performance last year, but in his defense he was still very green. He comes into SXSW with more experience and material, including six months of extra stage time and a new track with Kanye West. Also, his homie, frequent collaborator Chance the Rapper, has been hinting at a surprise appearance at the fest. Could ‘Ye show too? Anything is possible. (1 a.m. Tuesday, March 17, the Main)
Joey Bada$$. Hints of his Caribbean roots find their way into the rhymes of the Brooklyn-born emcee, but with lush soulful production and streetwise wisdom
Kevin Gates. It’s not SXSW without syrupy Southern rap, and this Baton Rouge, La., native has all the elements you crave — vivid street scenes, explicit club jams and beats that are slow, loud and banging. (11:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, Yahoo’s Brazos Hall)
Run the Jewels. The aggro-rap Internet kingpins who ruled 2014 are all over the fest. (Midnight Friday, March, 20, Cedar St. Courtyard)
Freddie Gibbs. Riding beats from super producer Madlib, the Gary, Ind., rapper’s’ “Pinata” was one of the best gangsta rap albums of 2014. (1:20 a.m. Wednesday, March 18, the Roosevelt)
Lyric Michelle. A voluptuous Houston emcee who fearlessly flips the script on hip-hop stereotypes that cast females on the scene as groupies and hangers on. She mixes sharp-edged rhymes, spoken word and smoky soul into streetwise stories and urgent outcries. (9:15 p.m. Thursday, March 19, the Blackheart)
Oddisee/DC Loves Dilla. Join the lyrically adept Sudanese/American rapper and Jon Laine & the Players, the house band for the annual DC Loves Dilla fundraiser, as they pay tribute to the late great hip-hop producer J. Dilla, who died of complications related to lupus in 2006. Will fellow Washington, D.C., rapper Wale, who’s also in town for the fest, drop by? Your guess is as good as ours. (12:40 a.m. Tuesday, March 17, Bungalow)
Rae Sremmurd: The debut album “SremmLife” from Tupelo, Miss., brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy just dropped in January, but the rap duo is already YouTube famous. The video for “No Type,” released last year, has close to 150 million views and with a new song, “Throw Sum Mo” featuring Nicki Minaj and Young Thug, their star is likely to rise stratospherically.