With so much new music being released every day, it's nearly impossible to shine a light on every special release that comes out. With the coming of the new year to put a bow on another turbulent but exciting year of independent music, now is again the perfect time to reflect on five projects that deserve a little extra shine above the endless cycle of noise in the music industry. These five all embody the struggles and successes of independent artists with emotive and distinct projects that should be looked back on fondly as their careers continue to grow and progress.
Reggie Becton – California
It might be somewhat of a misnomer to include Becton as a hidden gem. An effortless, ultra-sleek modern R&B singer with all the panache of the classics, he's seen marked growth upon the release of his stellar debut California in October. Coming off a tour slot opening for Grace Weber, the low profile of Becton belies a history of only the pinnacle quality of R&B and soul.
California is a narrative project about Becton's relocation from his Maryland home to the sunny West Coast to pursue the dream of full-time musicianship. While not an entirely new concept, the inflections and focuses of the album make the idea fresh and flavorful with in-depth looks at the the trials and tribulations of anyone pursuing their dreams far from home. Future classics like "Room 451" and "Depresshun" illustrate the sweet spot between swooning R&B standards and the new-school approach to mental health awareness and the less than idealized picture of the independent artist experience. It's a truly special, truly unabetted tour de force for an artist who avows all the values that make the indie experience special. Whether a hidden gem or not, Becton deserves another listen to his spectacular cohesion of sultry soul and brilliantly fresh artistic expression.
Dimitri Moore – Uncertainties
Continuing the theme of tour de force R&B debuts, Chicagoan-by-way-of Maryland artist Dimitri Moore subtly dropped one of the most unique and heartfelt projects of the past year that deserves more than just a little critical fanfare. Produced by Blake Wright, Uncertainties explores several themes of inspiration, love, and the unpredictability of being a young and underground artist. The left-of-center and orchestral opener "Come Around" is unlike most of the R&B opening tracks you've probably ever heard, with weird synths and glittering keys descending from the heavens, finishing with a beautifully sanguine outro. Standout "You Got Me" is a perfect song. A bold assertion, but entirely true. Touching and in-depth, it hits on every facet of what modern soul should be. Buoyed by the superb writing and versatility of Moore, it's a song that should absolutely be remembered out of 2021. The whole project doesn't accept misses, with even the interlude and outro pulling their weight on the ambitious and narrative-driven project.
Uncertainties is an incredibly bold project for any artist but for a brand new one like Moore, it's unprecedented. He earned a fan on this one, and you should be sure to keep an eye on his promising future.
Shanté – Protection
Hailing from the Bay Area in Oakland, California, Shanté is a callback to some of the most important soul songstresses of the early 2000s. She has that rare gift to calmly radiate an extremely powerful aura on every song while seemingly expending no energy of her own. Beginning with the subdued but moving cut "Deep End," the project will hit you over the head with Shanté's emotional conveyance, blessed vibrato, and smoky production that perfectly melts into the background. Perhaps the project's standout track "Passionfruit"—sampling "Party On Mars" is what should sell you on the project with an energy somewhere between house anthem and soul-fused retro love song. Projects like this don't come along very often, and when they do, they are worthy of some extra praise for the intense attention to detail that few can replicate.
451 – Night Vision
Perched somewhere between the cocaine-fueled House of Balloons-era themes of the Weeknd and the early, experimental distorted autotune of Travis Scott is the music of UK-based rapper and singer 451. Bathed in ambiance, Night Vision is a dark-R&B wonderland best suited for cinematically stormy and neon-tinged nights, whether at home with a lover or at the club long after hours. Coming off a stellar debut in 2018, 451 built a fanbase enraptured by his moody trap-turned-R&B stylings that signaled him as a voice of note in the underground alt R&B scene. He more than delivered on Night Vision, with standouts like brooding opener "One Hyde Park" and energetic "Nobu No More," perfectly illustrating exactly what to expect from the stylings of the UK crooner. It's a project that never gets too heavy-handed in its smoky and ambivalent themes, with 451 alternating between the ultra-confident and the deeply introspective at the drop of a hat.
indie tribe – U P P E R H A N D
2021 featured a great collection of new rap crews coming up into the public conscious, including Van Buren Records, O2worldwide, surf gang, and many more. One of the biggest surprises of the year was undoubtedly the rise of the aptly named indie tribe with their debut project U P P E R H A N D stealing the show for well-rounded independent hip-hop crews. Able to pull off ultra-up-tempo bangers like "HOLY SMOKE!" in tandem with tightly written, introspective gems like "SALTWATER," the crew (made up of Nobigdyl, Mogli The Iceburg, Jon Keith, and DJ Mykael V) is no joke. Christian hip-hop often has the chance to be more Christian than hip-hop but the tribe's offering is extremely polished and listenable, never showing too much of their hand on the project. All emcees are eminently capable of dropping bars with reckless abandon, with high energy and ruthless efficiency. What they managed to prove on U P P E R H A N D is that indie tribe is more than just a Christian rap crew, they are one of the most exciting new crews to come out of the past year. Period.