Why you should care
Because this is the next gen of great music.
Get your headphones ready and turn the sound way up. While OZY was at SXSW, we caught some of the best newish faces in music, hailing from New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles and Birmingham (England, not Alabama). There’s funk, rap and soul here, ready to catch you whatever mood you’re in. Stay with me, people; you’ve clicked to get here — now listen.
Someone needs to throw a “Who’s the Next John Legend?” contest. Jacob Banks would win within the first minute. At SXSW, he was seemingly everywhere, blowing the crowd’s mind with his soulful singing and movie-star good looks. The 24-year-old phenom from Birmingham, England, is the man behind “depressing” songs — his word, not mine — which he apologized for from the stage. But he’s only ever received positive reinforcement, so maybe he really means sorry, not sorry. After touring with Emeli Sandé in 2013 and performing on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge as an unsigned artist, Banks released another EP in 2015 and a new single this March. Listen and weep.
The New Jersey native is a funk-infused rapper in his mid-20s with catchy hooks and quick flow. At SXSW, the stiff crowd loosened up when “Tropicana,” his most pop-friendly song, broke out. Over 6 feet tall and slim, Jones breaks out the moves too. Another track, “Powerball,” will inevitably make you bounce as the hook hits: “If you don’t jump, how you ever gonna get down?” Jones is a showboat on stage, making eye contact, unleashing smirks and executing lots of spins that lift his long dreadlocks. In a musical family tree, he descends from Earth, Wind & Fire and Outkast; contemporarily, he sounds a tad like Bruno Mars or Kendrick Lamar. Good luck trying to be as cool as Topaz Jones … it’ll probably never happen.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Chicago lyricist and rapper because of her collaboration with Chance the Rapper, which landed her on Saturday Night Live. She’s much more than that, though. Noname’s flow is gentle, but she hits each note and enunciates the punches in her lyrics. She raps about Chicago and includes preachy, choir-esque choruses. (To wit: Performing live, she wore a Catholic schoolgirl skirt — and not the ultra-sexy Britney Spears kind.) Young and stylish, Noname is even better live than via your preferred streaming service. How’d her set end at SXSW? She had the whole audience singing to her song “Yesterday.” When she asked the crowd if they had had fun, they responded with a drawn-out “Yes-terday.” Catch her this year at a host of music festivals across the country.
The music is hypnotic and at times might even kick you back to the ’90s, like when the band samples the Dawson’s Creek theme song. In an age where collaborations matter, THEY. is forming partnerships that vault the band ahead — like a smash hit with Zhu, with whom THEY. shares an independent record label. Perhaps it’s also a sign that it’s not just the vocals from Drew Love getting the band attention. Co-billing is clear: THEY.’s beat-maker isn’t just in the background. The band’s stated influences sprawl with notes of Taking Back Sunday, Kurt Cobain, Babyface and New Edition, among others. The only weakness might be their name, a true SEO killer, unless THEY. strike it bigger than the pronoun.