Sexyy Red – “SkeeYee”
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Cutting through a divisive climate with her brash energy, Sexyy Red’s banger “SkeeYee” was one thing that almost everyone could agree on. A joyous ode to feeling oneself, “SkeeYee” was a party anthem in a sea of downtempo flexes, a clarion call for fans of any gender to shake what god gave them. Everyone from athletes to streamers to her fellow rappers big-upped the song, turning up to Tay Keith’s addictive piano instrumental at every opportunity.

“SkeeYee” was one of the year’s quintessential viral anthems, making history as the first-ever number one hit on the Billboard x TikTok Top 50 chart. The song found unexpected popularity among sports teams, notably the New York Jets, whose love of the song was documented in the HBO series Hard Knocks. After Hard Knocks, and Sexyy’s viral appearance at the New York Jets season debut (covered in GQ, Vulture, ESPN, and more), “SkeeYee” surged onto the Billboard Hot 100, spending 7 weeks on the chart with a #62 peak.

Already a fixture of radio playlists, DJ sets, stadium interstitials, and more, “SkeeYee” was one of the year’s signature songs. In the future, if folks throw 2023-themed parties, “SkeeYee” will assuredly blast out of the speakers–and many of the attendees might just be wearing red wigs.

Ice Spice – “In Ha Mood”
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“She a baddie, she know she a ten/She a baddie with her baddie friend” – Ice Spice in “In Ha Mood”

It’s a line as simple as a nursery rhyme, but when a Capri Sun-sipping Ice Spice first shared the lyric in a snippet, it was clear that the young artist’s hot streak would continue. Produced by RIOTUSA, the song is a breezy banger, incorporating elements of Jersey club to give the pitched-up vocal samples and subsonic 808s a hip-shaking urgency.

At once playful and sensual, “In Ha Mood” was another step on Ice’s ladder to stardom, becoming her first-ever solo hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #58. Somewhat surprisingly, “In Ha Mood” overtook 2022’s “Munch (Feelin U)” and became Ice’s signature song, her festival closer, her SNL showcase, and her first-ever #1 hit on Urban radio.

As she continues to rise, “In Ha Mood” can be considered the moment when Ice Spice beat the meme allegations. She is much more than a reliable source of earworms that trickle from the internet to the masses; she is a true hitmaker.

That Mexican OT – “Johnny Dang” ft. Drodi & Paul Wall
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Vietnamese-American jeweler Johnny Dang has been a mainstay in rap culture for decades, as the biggest names in rap flocked to his Houston, TX shop for custom chains and grills. Now, thanks to fellow Texan That Mexican OT, with help from Dang’s business partner Paul Wall, Johnny Dang has a rap anthem to call his own.

“Johnny Dang” was the world’s introduction to the insanely charismatic That Mexican OT, who tore through the rap scene with rolled consonants and cowboy charm. Produced by BDon, who provides low-end thump and ringing minor chords the song was an admirable three-man weave: OT provides the hook and an All-American verse that namechecks Cadillacs and pecan pies, Drodi offers some leaned-out boy math, and Paul Wall puts a bow on the proceedings with a vintage 16.

Originally gaining viral traction as a snippet, “Johnny Dang” racked up millions of social media views even before its release. It kept the momentum going for the rest of the summer, receiving a memorable From The Ranch performance, with OT holding a rooster in arm, and going viral once again. To date, the song has racked up over 100 million streams, reaching #65 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Top 20 in Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. Rising along with it was That Mexican OT, all the while flashing his million dollar, Johnny Dang-enhanced smile as he rose to stardom.

Central Cee & Dave – “Sprinter”
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Despite its rich rap tradition and legacy of sonic innovation, UK rap has often struggled to penetrate the mainstream in the United States. Perhaps all it needed were two stars as sharp and charismatic as Central Cee and Dave, and a song as breezy and quotable as “Sprinter.”

Released as part of the duo’s surprise Spilt Decision EP, “Sprinter” and its plucky acoustic guitars and homespun percussion became an immediate standout. The song racked up over 108k units, and 13 million streams, in its first week alone, debuting at #1 on the UK Official Charts with the biggest rap opening week in the country’s history, and staying atop the charts for a record 10 weeks. Beyond the UK, “Sprinter” found success in Australia, reaching the top of the charts, peaked in Canada’s Top 5 (becoming the highest-charting non-US rap song in over a decade), and landed in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100. With over 437 million streams on Spotify alone, “Sprinter” has a reasonable case of being the biggest worldwide rap hit in UK history.

At its heart, though, “Sprinter” is rap music in its most elemental form: just two people passing the mic back and forth and having a blast

Sexyy Red – “Pound Town” / “Pound Town 2” ft. Nicki Minaj
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Sexyy Red knows how to grab your attention, and then keep it. Her breakout single “Pound Town” was the first indication that she was operating at a raunchiness level rarely reached, even in this golden age of female liberation in hip-hop. Much attention was paid to a particularly unprintable, anatomically correct line, but that was just one of many lyrics from the Tay Keith-produced song that took on a life of its own: “I’m outta town, thuggin with my rounds”; “I’m out here in Miamiiiii”; “You know them dreadheads do it the best.”

It wasn’t just the lyrics, but the way Sexyy delivered them, with her sirenic southern drawl and knack for turning an outlandish phrase into an inescapable earworm. “Pound Town” found many fans, including including Cardi B, Summer Walker, JT of City Girls, and more, before eventually making its way to Nicki Minaj, who blessed the remix with a brand new verse. Once Nicki hopped on, the song launched into the stratosphere, landing at #66 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Much more than a meme, “Pound Town” fits in a venerable lineage of sexually frank rap tunes that stretches all the way back to 2 Live Crew. Hear it once, and you will likely never forget it.

Ice Spice – “Princess Diana (Remix)” ft. Nicki Minaj
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Thanks to her regal disposition and burgeoning reputation as a people’s champ, Ice Spice’s rabidly online fanbase decided that she must be the reincarnation of the lovely Princess Diana. Ice paid tribute to her most devoted fans with “Princess Diana,” a highlight from her Like..? EP.

Ice’s fans–alternately called the Munchkins or The Spice Cabinet–weren’t the only ones paying attention: the Queen herself, Nicki Minaj, was watching too. The day that the Princess and the Queen united nearly broke the internet, generating millions of streams and views on the hot pink-hued music video. The Queen’s presence provided a jolt to the RIOTUSA-produced banger, as both rappers twisted their flows around muted guitars and clipped percussion.

Shortly after Nicki hopped on the remix, “Princess Diana” vaulted all the way into the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at #4. The duo reunited later in 2023 for “Barbie World,” another Top 10 hit, from Barbie, the biggest blockbuster of the summer.

Tainy – “MOJABI GHOST” ft. Bad Bunny
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Tainy is an architect of the modern reggaeton sound, one of the main artistic minds behind its evolution from regional genre to worldwide commercial force. His production emphasizes sonic fidelity, incorporates elements from other genres, and provides space for the vocalist to do their thing.

A highlight from his wide-ranging debut album, DATA, “MOJABI GHOST” recruits one of Tainy’s most famous collaborators, Bad Bunny, and deposits him in a milieu that one might not expect. There are hardly any traces of reggaeton’s signature riddim on the song, replaced by a driving 4/4 drum pattern. Using colorful synths and gated snares, Tainy helps Bad Bunny transform into an 80s-style pop icon, this melody soaring as he tries to distract himself from heartbreak with clothes, money, and meaningless sex. The song was a major hit, reaching #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 and generated over 200 million streams on Spotify alone.

The power of El Conejo’s plaintive yowl and Tainy’s fully-realized dreamscapes made “MOJABI GHOST” one of the year’s best songs in any language, further establishing Tainy as one of the music world’s most accomplished artists and songwriters.

Byron Messia – “Talibans” / “Talibans II” ft. Burna Boy
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Every summer, a hit song takes over New York City, blasting out of boomboxes and blaring out of open car windows until it becomes as inescapable as the sweltering heat. In 2023, the city’s Song of the Summer came from an unlikely source: St. Kittsian artist Byron Messia, whose smooth and sinister hit “Talibans” took over the Big Apple on its path to becoming the biggest global crossover dancehall hit in several years.

On its face, “Talibans” is a stern message from Byron to the world, a warning to anyone who might cross him that he and his friends, as he said in an interview with DASH Radio, “can get down like how di people dem in Afghanistan get down.” As sung by Byron, though, and in the hands of producers Ej Fya, Spaceship Billy & Kelly Beatz, “Talibans” gracefully slides, threading the invisible needle between dancehall, Afrobeats, and melodic rap. Breezily riding the beat with a conversational rhythm, Byron’s raspy tenor simultaneously reflects a lifetime of hurt and exudes the kind of swagger that could inspire a thousand Instagram captions.

“Talibans” struck a chord with the public, building momentum over the summer until it become a massive hit. The song’s impact was firsdt felt in NYC, where the song spent weeks on the city’s local Apple Music chart, peaking at #2, and spending multiple weeks at #1 in the city’s Shazam Top 50 (where it currently remains at #11). “Talibans” took off from there, racking up numbers and earning major radio airplay. The summer jam earned a spike when Byron shared “Talibans II,” blessed with an appearance from Burna Boy, propelling the song to the Billboard Hot 100. With that milestone, Byron Messia became the first artist from St. Kitts to ever make an appearance on that prestigious chart.

 

Lola Brooke – “Don’t Play With It” (Remix) ft. Yung Miami & Latto
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Delivering diamond tough bars from a petite frame, Lola Brooke is one of NYC’s most promising young rap stars. She first burst onto the scene with “Don’t Play With It,” a fierce andproudly confrontational banger that shines a spotlight on her authoritative vocals as she confronts a city full of broke boys with withering dismissals.

Lola was well on her way to stardom when she released “Don’t Play With It” (Remix) in March, recruting Latto and Yung Miami of City Girls to give the song a boost. The Dizzy Banko-produced song vaulted onto the charts, reaching #69 on the Billboard Hot 100.

She might be pint-sized, but Lola Brooke’s powerful vocals and force of personality allow her to stand out in a crowded New York scene. And as big as “Don’t Play With It” was, it’s clear that the bar-heavy Brooklyn rapper is only just getting started.

Oxlade – “Intoxycated” ft. Dave
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Blessed with honeyed vocals and a supernatural ability to slide over any beat, Oxlade burst out of Lagos with stardom on his mind. He reached a new level last year with “Ku Lo Sa,” and its corresponding COLORS Performance, generating hundreds of millions of streams.

Tasked with following up his internationally known breakout hit, Oxlade dialed up Dave to record “Intoxycated,” a song that dissects the modern language of love. The artists have a ping-ponging chemistry, as Oxlade adopts a more rhythmic delivery to match Dave’s flow. Tired of dealing with betrayal and sick of filtering real life through social media, “Intoxycated” finds the artists longing for the kind of meaningful connection that envelops all their senses and cuts through the artifice of online life.

The DeeYasso & Spax-produced song garnered international acclaim, earning mention in The New York Times, and racked up tens of millions of streams. In July, “Intoxycated” became Oxlade’s second song to chart on the UK Official Charts Top 50.

Danny Towers & DJ Scheme – “Florida Water” ft. Luh Tyler & Ski Mask The Slump God
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There is something in the water in the Sunshine State–maybe that’s why Florida became the home of the SoundCloud scene, filled with artists whose rhyme skills were only matched by their iconoclastic personas. Veterans of that game-changing movement, Danny Towers & DJ Scheme returned in 2023 with “Florida Water,” recruiting Ski Mask The Slump God and Luh Tyler to make a banger that stands up to any hit from that memorable era.

The TAPEKID & BWolf201-produced track is a sinister slapper (“this that weed blowin’, lean pourin’, real gangsta music,” intones Danny Towers), combining the smooth rider music of Luh Tyler’s native Tallahassee with the darker edges that have defined the South Florida underground sound. The song is a showcase for Danny Towers’ bone-deep rasp, as the Orlando native delivers a memorable hook alongside one of his most tongue-twisting verses to date: “Bumper to bumper, I’m in Rancho Cucamonga, I just snuck in with that thumper.” Luh Tyler and Ski Mask The Slump God elevate their games to keep up with their host, the former weaving his signature laid back flow around Scheme’s seismic 808 thumps, and the latter closing the proceedings with a colorful, Chia Pet-referencing verse.

“Florida Water” was one of the year’s most viral rap tracks–it inspired a photo dump trend on TikTok, where creators drop selfies from their Photos app as the beat drops and Danny’s chorus lyrics, “Threw him in that water, I’m from Florida, but my wrist Cuban,” gives way to Luh Tyler’s croaking verse. Peaking at #1 on TikTok’s trending charts, the song generated over 200k video creations on TikTok, over 40 million streams on all platforms, and reached the top spot on SoundCloud’s daily chart.

Key Glock – “Dirt”
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Key Glock is renowned for his beat selection and taste. He first developed his refined ear by paying close attention to the soul and blues music that his mother would play around the house during his youth.

“Dirt,” a highlight from Glockoma 2, is blessed by a incendiary, soul-sampling beat from King Ceeo, complete with chopped, pitched-up vocals and crunched strings, all layered over thudding Tennessee trap percussion. Like always, Glock rises to the occasion, referencing Friday and Jimmy Neutron as he methodically builds his case for being the hardest rapper from Memphis or anywhere else.

Along with other hits like “Chromosomes” and “Work,” “Dirt” was one of the fan favorite tracks from Glockoma 2, racking up over 6.2 million YouTube views and 21 million streams on Spotify.

Bandmanrill – “Mr. D.C.T.” / “Mr. D.C.T.” (Remix) ft. Maiya The Don
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“Gypsy Woman,” the 1990 house track by Crystal Waters, is an unimpeachable classic, raising an almost impossibly high bar for any sampling rapper to clear. Luckily, Newark artist Bandmanrill is an expert at rhyming over uptempo dance tracks. The club rap pioneer puts his own spin on that seminal classic with “Mr. D.C.T.,” which jacks up the tempo and adds Jersey club’s five-beat pattern to the iconic keyboard riff and Waters’ exhortations. Bandman weaves his flow between the hi-hats, strutting his stuff and refusing to be cuffed: “Tryna get mama a house and some figures/I know the gold comin’, I’m really a digger.”

Released in May, “Mr. D.C.T.” earned praise from the likes of Pitchfork and Stereogum in their reviews of its host album Defiant Presents: Jiggy In Jersey (Ft. MCVERTT). Later in the year, NYC rap sensation Maiya The Don hopped on “Mr. D.C.T. Pt. 2,” adding an element of bawdy confrontation to the ultra-smooth original.

Eem Triplin – “WALKED IN”
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Self-assured in his superior talent and cocksure swag, Eem Triplin might speak softly, but he fears nothing. His single “WALKED IN” is the most confrontational song in the Johnstown, PA artist’s young career. Produced by Eem himself, “Walked In” benefits from an immersive instrumental that mixes bells that chime like a submarine radar with a bass deeper than the Mariana Trench. Eem swims through the hazy atmosphere with his signature rasp, piecing together flexes into infectious hooks: “I went from rags to riches/B*tches you had, I had them b*tches/I’m the only n***** from my f*ckin’ city runnin’ up a milli on my business.”`

The puglisitic banger is a highlight from Eem’s debut EP STILL PRETTY, and a staple of his live shows. The video is a succinct encapsulation of the 22-year-old’s rise, featuring clips from tour and highlights from his trip to the Lyrical Lemonade office.

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